How James Beard Invented American Cooking

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I had dinner with James Beard sometime in the spring of 1984. I was a youngster editing a “feature” on mentors and their protégés for a men’s fashion magazine, with photographs by William Wegman, the avant-garde artist famous for his neo-Surrealist images of his dog—things like that happened in the eighties. Beard’s protégé was the chef Larry Forgione, whose recently opened restaurant on Lexington Avenue, An American Place, had a quote from Beard on the menu. Over dinner, I had the impression that, as happens often in life, the protégé had adopted the mentor more enthusiastically than the mentor the protégé; the epigraph from Beard was opaque, not to say a little fatuous: “The truth is, one must be inspired to cook. For, You Know, we always learn from others and end up teaching ourselves.” But the point of the restaurant was to cook American American food. Part of the kitchen’s indigenous exoticism—not a contradiction; the whole point—was the presence on the menu of halibut, which Forgione proudly presented as an overlooked American fish. (Things like that happened in the eighties, too.)

Only Beard could preside over such ambition. For Beard, a stolid, even sleepy, presence that evening, was unquestionably, as the Times had called him in the nineteen-fifties, the “Dean of American Cookery,” in the same way that Aaron Copland was the “Dean of all American music,” as Leonard Bernstein called him in the same period. In both cases, the reputation was somewhat independent of the achievements. You didn’t have to know the tunes, or the recipes, to know that the mantle rested here.

Beard was perfectly cast. Large, broad, and jovial-seeming, a Santa of the buffet table, he was untouched by the nervous tension, produced by early training and endless anxiety, that ran like an electric current through classic French chefs in those days. He was also clearly a pro—he had run a restaurant and a catering business—unlike the charming amateur Julia Child. Even in his waning years, he presented himself as a knowing headmaster overseeing the students.

Reading John Birdsall’s new biography of Beard, “The Man Who Ate Too Much” (W. W. Norton), I realize now that I had caught Beard in a somewhat sad dotage. (He would die a year after our dinner.) The only semi-memorable thing he offered that night was an anecdote, presumably meant to be mildly titillating, about eating in the nude with the great gastrophile M. F. K. Fisher, whom, of course, he called Mary. This, too, was part of the act: though gay and happily so in private, he had trained himself to play a cagey part in public when it came to his sexual tastes, as was the enforced manner of the day.

Birdsall’s biography is very different in tone from the largely serious and admiring biographies that have been written about Child and Fisher. Without actually saying that Beard was a fraud, Birdsall suggests that he was something of a figurehead, one of those people who represent a field rather than remake it. By Birdsall’s not particularly unkind record, Beard often borrowed other people’s recipes, frequently recycled his own, and generally relied on other cooks for his innovations and, not infrequently, on editors and assistants for his prose. Still, Beard emerges from the inevitable biographer’s bath of debunking as an essential figure in the emancipation of American cooking. Perhaps his abilities were those of the actor he had been in his youth, someone impersonating a gourmet more than actually knowing how to be one; Birdsall shows us a young Beard learning that all you have to do is swirl the wine around and sniff to pass as an oenophile. But the role that Beard invented and played was vital in creating a new idea of what American cooking was. In 1980, in the best restaurant guide in New York, all the four-star places were classic French ones. Four decades later, that type of restaurant has vanished, or has only been clinging to life (even before the pandemic), while places that share Beard’s tastes, if not his food, are taken for granted as the best in show. Beard, having little to do with what they serve, has everything to do with what they’ve accomplished.

Beard, we learn, played a suggestively ambiguous role in capitalizing on the American abundance of the fifties and sixties, and then mediated a dialogue between the country’s West and East Coasts that helped shape American cuisine. Born in 1903 and raised in Portland, Oregon, Beard was really a member of the Liebling-Hemingway generation, imprinted as he was by his experiences of France in the twenties. After a largely peripatetic childhood and a year at Reed, then a new liberal-arts college, he spent time in London and in Paris, studying voice, and then dove into performing, without great success, in London and New York and even silent Hollywood. His ambition to be an actor never really vanished. His move to food occurred, as much out of desperation as purpose, in the late thirties, under the influence of a couple of now forgotten New York socialites, Bill Rhode and James Barlow Cullum, Jr. Beard, his biographer tells us, “started the night wanting to go to bed with Bill; after hearing him talk for a couple of hours in Cullum’s living room, he wanted to be Bill.” Rhode showed that cooking could be a form of theatre. “His storytelling—the bravado behind the invented anecdotes—breathed life and drama into the recipes,” Birdsall writes. It was the central lesson that Beard absorbed: not merely selling the sizzle more than the steak but selling the story of how the sizzle came to be, even if the steak was not actually sizzling.

The next year, he joined with friends to open a catering business, the legendary Hors d’Oeuvre, Inc. It’s hard to believe now that a firm called Hors d’Oeuvre, Inc. could change the face of New York food, but it did. “The food at most cocktail parties relied on cheap, starchy fillers and bland spreads,” Birdsall reports. Instead, Beard served vichyssoise and stuffed tomatoes. Around this time, too, Beard met Jeanne Owen, a New York radio figure and a formidable gourmet. It was Owen who raised the brow of Beard’s palate, teaching him what was possible in French food; of the wineglass-swirling fakery, Birdsall adds that, if Beard “waited a minute, Jeanne would subtly signal to him what to think of it.” The relationship established a pattern in which Beard often depended on a woman partner who did not look the part of great chef quite as obviously as he did.

A lot of his authority derived from his appearance and his often heretical performances. He once scandalized but delighted an audience by mixing the egg whites and the base of a soufflé using only his hands. And his story about nude dining seems to have been thematic; he liked to cook and eat naked, and didn’t mind people knowing.

Building a reputation, he made his television début right after the war with a cooking spot on “Radio City Matinee.” It was here that he was introduced to a broad public, and he soon became a host of one of the first televised cooking shows, “I Love to Eat.” Birdsall writes that Beard exuded authority without pedantry—“he tempered information with folksiness and self-effacing fun.” One can’t help envy the ease with which Beard’s audience could be educated and edified—he encouraged viewers to seek out olive oil—but one recognizes that his tagline, “Yes! I love to eat!,” was exactly what Americans needed to hear to de-snob their culinary ambitions. The happy stout man showed that you could eat well without being frightened of eating incorrectly.

Beard’s rise on television in the forties coincided with the introduction of frozen food to America’s electric iceboxes, as they were called. Frozen food signalled both American ingenuity and the American degradation of fresh produce, and Beard skillfully played both sides of the supermarket aisle. On the one hand, he developed a professional relationship with the frozen-food company Birds Eye. (It soon sponsored his television show, which was renamed “Birds Eye Open House.”) “Despite himself,” Birdsall tells us, Beard came up with “recipes for frozen squash with oranges, frozen green bean and ham hash, and frozen three-fruit compote.”

On the other hand, he came to understand that the empire of frozen food, including so-called TV dinners, was stirring a contrary demand, among a smaller but choicer market, for fresh produce and “natural” options. In an age when every neighborhood in Brooklyn makes six kinds of artisanal ale and every emporium on the West Side offers sixteen kinds of American chèvre, it may be hard to grasp that simply promoting decent American Cheddar was once a defiant assertion of value against the ascendancy of Velveeta.

Beard brought both an American curiosity about adventurous cooking and a conservative sensibility then seen as French to “The Fireside Cook Book,” published in 1949 and gloriously illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen. It expressed his love for the hearty “traditional cooking” of France, redefined for an American audience often simply by language games. Beard’s “country omelet,” in which eggs were combined with diced bacon sautéed with potatoes and onion, was just a variant of the French omelette paysanne, which used salted pork belly. “With American smoky bacon and an English name to reorient it,” Birdsall writes, “James created something new in Fireside: a dish that seemed to have roots with farmers in the Willamette or Susquehanna Valley, not villagers in the Rhône. American food.”

The book was, however, made up in large part of work already done: more than a hundred of its twelve hundred or so recipes were, Birdsall says, “slight tweaks of ones published in James’s previous books, with perhaps only a single word altered”; Birdsall calls these “brazen acts of self-plagiarism.” Self-plagiarism is a dubious concept in any case—Kant repeated the same ideas over and over—and in recipe books it seems an absurd one. If you have made something well once, why make it differently for the mere sake of variation? Nonetheless, the recycling irritated the New York food world—about as generous and free from competitive malice then as now—and the book, despite its still unequalled beauty, got a nasty pan in these pages from, as Birdsall deduces, a food writer named Sheila Hibben. She declared it “enormously pretentious, repetitious, padded with bits of women’s-magazine anthropology.” Birdsall suggests that Hibben wrote at the direction of Jeanne Owen, who apparently had fallen out with Beard. The experience left Beard with a cynical clarity: you just had to push your way through, and rely on consumers, not critics, for your living.

“The Man Who Ate Too Much” makes a fascinating and persuasive case that Beard was brought to an idea of culinary Americanness by re-experiencing the American West. Taken with the recipes of Helen Evans Brown, who wrote the first substantial California cookbook, he spent much of 1954 with Brown in San Francisco, back home in Oregon, and in Seattle and Salt Lake City. Beard glimpsed what he considered a more authentic form of Americanness, which depended on cooking not being too self-consciously American. Once again with a woman to guide him, he sensed clearly that the future lay not with French cooking made American but with something akin to what came to be called fusion cooking. As a child, he’d watched a Chinese émigré he met adapt her cooking to the ingredients of the Oregon countryside and start to create something new. And, Birdsall illuminatingly points out, San Francisco bar-and-grills had been high-low joints from the start, serving steaks and cioppino alike. Ever afterward, the richest vein in Beard’s teaching depended on this epiphany: that what mattered was the hybrid connection of culinary cultures with good local foodstuff.

This primacy of a West Coast ethic in cleaning up New York anxieties was a general rule of American culture at the time. The painters Wayne Thiebaud and Richard Diebenkorn both had a less harried and tense relationship to their material—the one to pop culture, the other to landscape—than their New York counterparts could. Making the American sublime landscape into large-scale abstraction was a worry for Barnett Newman; Diebenkorn just kind of did it. The West Coast turned you on by turning off the pressure.

In the fifties, Beard moved to a town house in the West Village and began an extremely successful life as a cooking teacher. By the mid-sixties, he held food seminars for a student body made up, significantly, of men, many apparently of the executive class, seeking a new kind of fashionable accomplishment, much as nineteenth-century girls had mastered drawing. Some of the food prepared will seem to us now more alarming than appetizing: Birdsall describes “ ‘an elaborate jelly roll’ of veal, salami, mortadella, and prosciutto, to be wrapped around hard boiled eggs laid end-to-end down the center.” Beard published a series of books, some very successful and some less so—“The James Beard Cookbook” sold extremely well, while the lively recipe-sprinkled memoir “Delights and Prejudices” did not. He continued to depend unduly on editors and ghostwriters for his prose, and never quite got past the charges of cynical recycling.

Birdsall makes the right point: that the food being taught, despite its heavy and righteous patina of Americanness, was still essentially French in conception and technique. Tellingly, one of Beard’s protégés was accused of plagiarizing a series of recipes from Richard Olney’s “Simple French Food” for his own book on American cooking. That the national styles could be so neatly swivelled around says something about the common grammar of food. (Indeed, as the fine forgotten restaurant critic Seymour Britchky wrote back in the eighties, about Forgione’s flagship, there was hardly a dish being served that, minus the American rhetoric, you couldn’t have sold at a French place down the street.) It took small, constant waves of novelty—a variety of Eastern influences, the new primacy of Italian cooking, the emphasis on localism, implicit but not fully realized in Beard’s food—to change that for good, and make American cooking less showily “American” and more unself-consciously itself.

Birdsall has a good story to tell, and tells it well, but he is one of those authors who would amuse others more if he amused himself a little less. He loves the sound of his own crabby and condescending judgments, and the proportion of sneering to seeing is sometimes high. He also has a weakness for breezy but off-beam generalizations about people and places: though one of them had worked at Disney, the Provensens, the gifted and original illustrators of Beard’s “The Fireside Cook Book,” were not “Disneyfied”—just the opposite, their style being rooted in Greek vase painting and in the art of Juan Gris—and New York publishing, in an era when Knopf and Liveright were both central, seems mischaracterized as “anti-Semitic.” Birdsall’s generalizations about France, where Beard visited throughout his life, can be particularly puzzling. De Gaulle’s cultural minister André Malraux did not clean the Louvre in the sixties with an eye to luring American tourists—on the contrary, it was a declaration of French cultural preëminence. And if gay life in Paris was indeed driven underground in the fifties, compared to its supposed prewar flourishing, this has left little trace in the literary record; it was in 1952 that the locus classicus of French homophilia, Sartre’s “Saint Genet,” appeared, making transgressive sex seem not merely acceptable but sanctified, and an influx of gay American exiles, from James Baldwin to James Lord, filled the city in that period.

Well, damn braces and bless relaxes, as Blake propounded, and Birdsall is at his best when he relaxes and tells rather than judges. The Beard who finally emerges is indeed a big figure, and, if more role player than role model, his was the role that the play demanded at the moment. His books are a chronicle of beautiful borrowing. At one point, Birdsall, while pointing to recipes taken without credit, also points out that in Beard’s “American Cookery” there is “a kind of secret record of twentieth-century gay migration to cities from across the county and beyond its shores,” with Lemon Cake Pudding and Slaw with Egg Dressing marking the flight of young gay men from their imprisoning provincial backgrounds to the havens of lower Manhattan and Los Angeles.

The migrations are the man, and the food. Beard’s energetic foundation has kept his name alive, handing out prizes and grants (although this year’s Oscars of Food were suspended). His critical contribution was to see that good American cooking is everything American, which is to say pretty much everything there is. Appetite is too honest in its nature to exalt anything that it doesn’t relish. The British love of curry survived the loss of empire and left space for South Asian cooks in Scotland to develop tikka masala. French bistro fare, renamed, provided the syntax of American cooking, while the dietary staples of the Northwestern indigenous peoples provided its vocabulary. For all that James Beard didn’t know, there was one thing he did: everything on your plate is hybrid, made from many kinds and from many places.

In this sense, all food writing is travel writing, a story of migrations and journeys, as all travel writing is at heart literary criticism, a comparison of books and experience. All books, meanwhile, exist in the first instance to feed their authors. The circle of life is shaped like a plate, and we share many at once, or just go hungry. ♦

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