When I ripped open the box a few months ago and realized what it was - a new edition of James Beard’s American Cookery – at 900 pages as monumental in size as it was, I actually shivered as if I’d seen a ghost, memories of Jim tumbling to the front of my brain.
This Bible of American cooking seems more timely 39 years after its original publication with today’s America’s chefs and foodniks obsessed by local sourcing, regional cooking, heritage products. In 1972 with New Yorkers discovering paella, tuna carpaccio and Szechuan cooking, it was bold though actually not surprising from this champion of regional tradition. “Too much of James Beard is just enough for me,” I wrote in New York magazine.
I hailed the charismatic culinary pioneer as The Big Daddy of American Cooking.“In the beginning there was James Beard,” was how Julia Child put it. But in the beginning, once he’d given up on an acting career and turned to catering for a living, the Portland, Oregon-born indulged only child, like most early foodies was enamored of French cooking. Of his 21 books, most of them classics still in print (Hors d’Oeurves and Canapés was the first)Paris Cuisine came before the Barbeque Cookbook. Years before he set upThe James Beard Cooking School in 1955, he was a pioneer in food on television, on the road doing classes and promoting his books at a time unhatched American cooks were just learning to defrost.
I was never in the innermost circle of James Beard confidants, protégés, and sycophants. When I tried to sign up for Beard’s advanced cooking class in 1974, I was flatly rejected. “No one can take the advanced class till they’ve done the introductory,” his assistant told me. There was no argument, no string to pull. How embarrassing. I, the somewhat self-dazzled restaurant critic of New York magazine must join the novices in his teaching kitchen. It was impossible to resist his contagious enthusiasm. Jim would perch on a tall stool in one of his red or black cotton tunics, tree trunk–like legs splayed for balance as he took our measure, pairing us off—two by two—with an assignment for the evening to put together the various courses of what would be dinner.
Beard was a legend for his extraordinary taste memory, the ability to retain and recapture a dish’s distinct tangle of scents, flavors, and textures, not unlike a great musician or composer’s perfect pitch. And he could convey a sense of the joy in a new discovery with the details of the stories he told. Even as I write this I can almost feel the weight of his huge hand on top of mine guiding me in the exact motion to make mayonnaise on a plate with a fork. And I was amused that behind the shower curtain the downstairs bathroom tub was filled with Imari dishes and velvety toilet paper that he ordered by the case from somewhere in the south.
My favorite image from class is that of Jim standing at the kitchen counter carving a slab of seared brisket, slipping a chunk of fat into his mouth, and laughing. “I’m a fat boy myself.”
It was Jim I called one Sunday afternoon in late 1981 when I read an article in the New York Times headlined “City Scrimps to Feed The Aged.” He’d read it too. We agreed it was impossible to live our lives of delicious excess and unacceptable in America that frail, ailing, invisible elderly neighbors unable to shop or cook for themselves, might go 72 hours without a lunch because government funds to deliver meals did not stretch to cover weekends and holidays. That weekend in a round-robin of phone calls by food world friends, we raised $35,000. Six thousand New Yorkers who would have gone without had a Christmas dinner. Moved by the experience, we organized Citymeals-on-Wheels as a public/private partnership with the city’s Department for the Aging and the two of us, Jim and me as co-chairs. This year, its 30th, Citymeals will raise $19 million and deliver 2.5 million meals.
We had planned to mark his 82nd birthday with our first American Chefs Celebration in the garden at Rockefeller Center as a fund-raiser. When Jim died a few months earlier at 82, the giant cookout became a tribute with many of his protégés coming in from across the country to cook. I imagined Jim floating in the sky over the garden laughing to see that three of the chefs had cooked his favorite, pork.
I cannot imagine what his uncensored comment would be about the strangers seated at fund-raising dinners smack up against his outdoor shower. It was not his idea that his home and cooking school on 12th Street in Greenwich Village would become the seat of the James Beard Foundation, dedicated to championing American cooking tradition and providing scholarship help for culinary education. But his friends dreamed it up, and so it is. He lives on in legend, through the books of course, as an inspiration at Citymeals, and as the face engraved on the longed for medals awarded for excellence each year by the foundation to chefs, restaurants, journalists, cookbook authors, designers and electronic media and to food world humanitarians.
Gael Greene’s journal and archive can be found here
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