James Beard is a name hardly anyone knows anymore. Not really. Certainly every food enthusiast knows the name of the foundation that bears his name. We know the little gold seal that goes with the prize-winning cookbooks, best chef chef endorsements and glittering galas that are held each year at Lincoln Center. But few of us know much about the man. His cookbooks are little-known now, save perhaps for Beard on Bread, which for many years was the only really reliable guide for making decent bread at home. Today most of his 22 titles, including his famous American Cookery are considered quaint relics, even when they’re reissued with updated covers and introductions. It’s a shame.
James Beard was and is a big subject. He stood six foot three and weighed roughly 300 pounds. He loved cooking, writing, and probably more than either of those, eating. He was born in 1903 in Portland, Oregon, the son of a customs agent and a hotel proprietor, who instilled in him a love of good food. He spent time in Paris in the 1920’s but soon returned to the States hoping to make a life for himself as a singer and an actor. He tried his luck in the movies. Failing that he moved to New York in the late 30’s hoping for a career on the stage. Indeed he did wind up on one, though of a very different kind than he imagined.
Cocktail parties were hot then. Following World War I they spread from America to the Continent and came back again, returning as black tie, high society affairs. Beard was able to capitalize on the trend, founding a catering company that served dressed up finger foods of the sort he had enjoyed in France. His first book, not surprisingly, was called Hors D’Oeuvres and Canapés. Though World War II took some of the momentum out of his career, the affluent, celebratory American society that emerged from it was ripe for his happy-go-lucky attitude toward cooking and eating.
Indeed if you were going to reduce James Beard down to any one word it would be: fun. Beard was not a technician, he was a social animal, and his approach to food reflected it. He understood and relished the complexities of Continental cuisine, yet he also deeply loved the foods of the traditional American table. Extracting the maximum amount of pleasure from each was his lifelong project. He knew how to eat at a hot dog stand and dine at Maxim’s and he sought to instill that knowledge in others through his cooking schools, TV shows and his many, many books.
Given that Beard was a man of such diverse interests, it’s difficult if not impossible to compress him into a single 350-page book. At best a volume of such length can only provide and overview, which The Essential James Beard Cookbook does ably. It’s a flashback to the way cookbooks were written in Beard’s time: with few if any pictures or illustrations, short introductions and several recipes to a page. If you buy this book looking for the sort of glitz that you find in many of the cookbooks that bear his foundation’s gold seal, you’ll be disappointed. It’s not a coffee table title for voyeurs, it’s a collection of solid, tested recipes for cooks. From the vitello tonnato to the turkey chili, it is very Beard.
The book contains a little bit of everything, from (of course) cocktail foods, soups and salads to meats, fish, egg dishes, vegetables, breads and sweets. Many of the entries are international, many are American, many are a blend of both, which was very much in the spirit of his day. Contemporary foodies have an unhealthy obsession with a chimera called “authenticity.” Beard never had it, nor would he today were he alive, I don’t think. Making the literal best out of what’s available — or what one can reasonably acquire — was what he was about. A mad dash to the specialty shop for truffle oil would have taken time away from the martinis.
Lastly I’ll note that my one disappointment with the book is the organization of the last few sections, where the page numbers don’t match with the section indexes. That’s a bit of a pain for us bakers, and a bush-league error for a press as prestigious as St. Martin’s. But then editing ain’t what it used to be. Just read my blog.