Who Was James Beard?
Amid the rising popularity of TV dinners and convenience foods, James Beard highlighted the importance of freshly obtained, high-quality ingredients. (The New York Times labeled him the "Dean of American Cookery.") Beard authored multiple cookbooks that elevated the perception of American cooking, though his work also relied on ghostwriters and used some recipes without credit.
Beard's other accomplishments include a successful cooking school and consulting for restaurants like The Four Seasons. He also helped his friend Julia Child by supporting her work. Beard did not publicly acknowledge that he was a gay man, but close associates knew of his sexuality. He died in 1985 at the age of 81. Today, Beard is primarily remembered for the James Beard Foundation, whose awards are considered the pinnacle of achievement for professionals in the restaurant world.
When Was James Beard Born?
James Andrews Beard was born to Mary Elizabeth Jones and John Beard on May 5, 1903, in Portland, Oregon.
Beard's mother, who had previously owned and operated a boarding house, was an excellent cook whose culinary skills and preferences influenced her son's sensitive palate. Beard later wrote of his mother, "She loved to cook, eat and talk food more than almost anyone else I have known."
Jue Let, an immigrant from China, worked as a cook in the Beard household. He followed Beard's mother's recipes but also prepared dishes like congee for Beard.
Summer seaside vacations made Beard a fan of Oregon seafood.
In 1920, Beard graduated from Washington High School in Portland. He proceeded to Reed College, where he became class treasurer and was cast in operas.
After his liaison with a male professor was uncovered, Beard was expelled from school.
Early Career as a Performer
After the painful episode of his expulsion, Beard studied voice in London and Paris. The trip overseas also expanded his culinary horizons. He then spent the 1920s and early '30s trying to build a career as a performer.
Beard worked in theatrical productions in New York City and Portland and as a radio announcer in Portland. He had a few small parts in films during the silent era. He studied scenic and costume design at Carnegie Tech but found no jobs during the Great Depression.
In New York City during the late 1930s, Beard realized he needed a new career path. With his culinary skills, he co-founded the catering company Hors d'Oeuvre, Inc. with siblings Bill and Irma Rhode. Hors d'Oeuvre, Inc. was a great success and was followed by Beard's cookbook Hors D’Oeuvre and Canapés (1940). The book did not acknowledge his co-founders' contributions but did incorporate their recipes.
During World War II, Beard served as a cryptographic specialist in the United Seamen's Service. Following his discharge in 1943, he returned to New York City and food. In 1946, he hosted the first nationally televised cooking show.
In his work, Beard shared his genuine appreciation for American cuisine (though he tended to prefer dishes with European heritage). He wrote a cookbook for outdoor cooking, a subject others disdained. Other Beard books contained regional recipes and dishes like cornbread and potato salad.
The James Beard Cooking School was founded in 1955. In 1960, the school began to operate out of Beard's townhouse in Greenwich Village, and he also traveled around the country to teach. Some people waited for years to attend Beard's classes, which covered topics such as soufflés, omelets, bread making and dinner parties.
In 1959, Beard collaborated with restaurateur Joe Baum to launch New York City's Four Seasons Restaurant. Other restaurants he consulted for include the World Trade Center's Windows on the World. Beard also had his own restaurant on Nantucket.
Though Beard preferred fresh, seasonal ingredients, he was willing to compromise. When frozen food company Birds Eye became a sponsor for his television show, he created recipes with frozen ingredients. He also advertised frozen vegetables from Green Giant.
Beard wrote a syndicated column, contributed to magazines and authored 22 cookbooks in his lifetime. His manuscripts often needed to be heavily edited, and some featured ghostwriters. Beard even pilfered recipes in his work. However, many of his cookbooks became seminal parts of American food culture. His work includes:
Cook It Outdoors (1942)
The Fireside Cook Book (1949)
The James Beard Cookbook (1959)
Delights and Prejudices (1964), a memoir that incorporated recipes
James Beard’s American Cookery (1972)
Beard on Bread (1973)
Beard on Pasta (1983)
Beard recorded reminiscences in which he stated, "By the time I was 7, I knew that I was gay." He came out to his mother as a young man. However, in Beard's lifetime being openly gay could have ruined his career and potentially resulted in arrest or sterilization.
After his expulsion from Reed College for his same-sex liaison, Beard explored the gay underground scene in Europe during the 1920s. He went on to have a longstanding relationship with pastry chef Gino Cofacci. Beard also made overtures to some young men who sought him out in a professional capacity.
When Beard passed away, he was working on a memoir that revealed his sexuality.
Beard stood at 6-foot-3 and weighed up to 350 pounds as an adult. In 1971, he suffered a heart attack. He subsequently went on a low-calorie, no-salt diet to manage the symptoms of heart disease. His The New James Beard (1981) contained some of these recipes.
When Did James Beard Die?
Beard died on January 21, 1985, in New York City. The cause of death was heart failure. He was 81 years old.
Reed College, which granted Beard an honorary degree in 1976, received Beard's cookbook collection and a large portion of his estate after his death; this helped support the James Beard Scholarship Fund.
The non-profit Citymeals-on-Wheels, which Beard co-founded in 1981, continues to provide food for homebound seniors in New York City.
To honor Beard's contributions to food culture, Julia Child and other friends established the James Beard Foundation and purchased Beard's townhouse, which officially opened as the James Beard House in 1986.
The first James Beard Foundation Awards were presented in 1991. The awards, often described as the Oscars of the food world, honor accomplishments in food journalism, education and beyond but are best known as one of the highest achievements attainable for chefs. The awards were canceled in 2020, in part, to address concerns over judging bias. The 2021 ceremony highlighted how the restaurant industry coped during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to his foundation and books, Beard has been the subject of several biographies and the PBS documentary James Beard: America's First Foodie (2017). Beard was also portrayed in the HBO Max series 'Julia.'
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