James Beard was born on May 5, 1903, in Portland, Oregon. After trying his hand at theater, he opened a catering company in the late 1930s, compiling his recipes in his first cookbook: Hors D'Oeuvre and Canapés. Beard was a pioneer of television cooking shows, a proponent of gourmet culture and an inspiration for Julia Child and countless other chefs. He died in New York City in 1985.
Were it not for James Beard, food in America could have had as bad a reputation as British food in the 20th century. James Andrew Beard was born on May 5, 1903, in Portland, Oregon, an exceptionally large baby—by some accounts, 13 or 14 pounds—to father John, a Custom's House worker, and mother Mary Elizabeth, who was born in Britain, had run a boardinghouse and had a keen interest in food.
Her son inherited this interest, which was exhibited early on, he would later say, in multiple visits to the Lewis and Clark Exposition of 1905, where he was mesmerized by seeing how Triscuit crackers were made. Family vacations to the Pacific Coast, where seafood and wild berries proliferated, also had an effect, as did his childhood bout with malaria, when he came to appreciate not only his mother's innovative meals, but their Chinese domestic, Jue-Let.
The large boy became a large young man with not only an appreciation of food, but a love for the arts, another penchant of his mother's. He was heavily involved in the theatrical world in school and earned quite a reputation, but at Portland's Reed College, after rumors of his homosexuality began to spread, he was quietly expelled.
So James Beard moved to Europe—a trip arranged by his mother—and then to New York City to study and pursue an acting and singing career.
Beard's acting career was sporadic. Making cast dinners backstage eventually evolved into a catering company as his bread-and-butter job, but it wouldn't be long before he realized that food was his true calling.
Having moved back to New York, in 1937, Beard and a partner opened Hors d'Oeuvre, Inc. to cater to the cocktail parties so in vogue. In 1940, a book borne out of that success, Hors d'Oeuvre and Canapes, set his course. More books followed, as well as teaching cooking classes and giving lectures. This was briefly interrupted by World War II, where Beard primarily set up canteens for servicemen overseas.
But back in New York by 1946, Beard was featured on an early televised cooking show, NBC's I Love to Eat. Over the next 10 years, Beard would churn out almost as many cookbooks, including Paris Cuisine, James Beard's Fish Cookery, How to Eat Better for Less Money and The Casserole Cookbook. This work culminated as a James Beard Cooking School both in New York and Oregon.
Beard continued to be a large presence on the culinary scene, defining American cuisine and placing him firmly on the epicurean map.
Death and Legacy
James Beard had amassed 20 books by the time of his death, on January 21, 1985, in New York City.
In his honor, the James Beard Foundation celebrates America's culinary heritage in myriad ways, including awards. Alice Waters was the foundation's "Best Chef in America" honoree in 1992—becoming the first woman to win this award.
Citymeals-on-Wheels, an organization that Beard founded with food critic Gael Greene to help feed New York City's homebound elderly, is still going strong today.
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