Joe’s Books: The Essential James Beard Cookbook

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.

13 thoughts on “Joe’s Books: The Essential James Beard Cookbook”

  1. I used to have a pocket-book sized James Beard Cookbook back in the early 80s. It was an absolutely wonderful book and I still don’t know where I lost it! Among my favorites were his sponge cake recipe (a simple and delicious lemon flavored sponge cake) and his brownie recipe, which was legendary. I also have Beard on Bread, and there are a couple of recipes that I make periodically because they’re simply perfect. He was unique, that’s for sure.

    Regards from tempest tossed New York City!

    1. I’ve been thinking about you, Chana, but wasn’t sure if you had internet or not. I keep trying to imagine what life is like in the Village where we used to live. What area are you in again?

      I trust you’re keeping body and soul together!

      – Joe

  2. “Just read my blog.” Heehee

    I do read it, and I do often note the, er, uniquely fresh, unpretentious editing style. Seriously though, Joe, I would happily volunteer to be a copy editor if you want one. And I am sure there are others who would help you out. Your blog is fantastic, fun, and informative!

    1. Hehe…thanks Derek! If from time to time you point out some of my more egregious errors, that would be great. I’d never want to burden anyone with editing me regularly. Keeping me — as much as is possible — from looking like an idiot would be nice. 😉

      – Joe

  3. HELP! I’ve been looking for Beard’s recipe for Chicken Tetrazzini (not the one in the American cookbook), but a recipe given me by an enamoured uncle during the Nixon years. It contained a stock based volute sauce, sauteed mushrooms (of which, the buttered residue was sprinkled on the egg noodles), and sherry and possibly white wine. It was ethereal. I think the recipe may have originated from Playboy magazine, but, hopefully, made its way into a cookbook. I’ve tried to duplicate it, but need desperate help with the sauce.

    1. Here you go, Phyllis. This one matches your description save for the mushrooms. It has bell peppers instead. Otherwise it’s a match. I wish more people ate tetrazzini these days! 😉

      For the sauce:

      6 T unsalted butter
      6 T all-purpose flour
      2 1/2 cups cooking liquid from a poached chicken, or stock
      1 cup heavy cream
      1/2 cup dry sherry
      1/4 t Tabasco sauce
      Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
      About 4 cups cooked (poached) chicken
      2 red bell peppers roasted until black, peeled, seeded and diced

      1 pound spaghetti
      3/4 cup bread crumbs, made from day-old bread
      1/2 cup fresh grated Parmesan
      2 T cold unsalted butter

      Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan over medium-low heat. Whisk in the flour and let the roux bubble for about a minute. Gradually whisk in the liquid and cook until thickened, whisking constantly. Add the cream and sherry and season with salt, pepper and Tabasco. Add the chicken and bell peppers and keep the sauce warm.

      Cooked the pasta al dente in a large pot of salted water. Butter a large, shallow baking dish. Pour the pasta into the dish. Spoon on the sauce. Sprinkle on the bread crumbs and Parmesan, and dot with butter. Bake in a preheated 475 oven for a few minutes until the topping is glazed and the sauce bubbling.

      Variations: add a tablespoon of curry powder to the roux when you add the flour. Or, add a finely chopped black truffle to the chicken, then, instead of the bread crumbs, top the tetrazzini with 1/2 cup of toasted, sliced almonds.

      Can you imagine anyone using a truffle for a casserole these days? Uthinkable. Which is exactly while I’ll do it! 😉 Have fun, Phyllis!

      – Joe

  4. My first James Beard cookbook — a small paperback whose pages are tan now with chipped corners — has the quiche recipe my family thinks should be the only one!

    His advice on spices and a gazillion ways to fix chicken breasts still help me.

    1. Nice to know there are people out there still using his excellent books!


      – Joe

  5. I am looking for the recipe from the James Beard cookbook. The recipe is a sweetpotato/sausage with a praline topping. Could you please e-mail me the recipe.

    1. It’s not in the book, Judith, I’m sorry to say. If I run across it I’ll send it along!

      Wish I could be of more help,

      – Joe

  6. I first found “Amish Potato Filling” in a cookbook 40 years ago when I was a college student. It was big hit with my friends who were pulling all-nighters to study.
    Frankly, I don’t recall if the recipe I want is a Beard, but I think it is. I see many Potato Filling recipes on the internet but none quite like the one I remember. It called for sausage.
    Thank you!

    1. Hey Linda!

      I checked my books and I don’t see the recipe, but it can’t be too hard to reproduce. I’ll add caramelized onions to mashed potatoes with a little salt and pepper and sausage bits. That sounds pretty fabulous to me!

      Cheers and best of luck,

      – Joe

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