Book Review: After More Than 50 Years, James Beard's Basics Still Work

By Judith Weinraub
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 17, 2008

With its empowering directions and ample illustrations, the reissue of the late James Beard's "Fireside Cook Book" might be tantalizing to today's home cooks. But in the current economic environment, one of his lesser-known books might be equally intriguing. "How to Eat Better for Less Money," written in 1954 and reissued in 1970, was the renowned food writer and teacher's attempt to rein in food costs and still maintain high standards.

In the 1950s, Beard was already a well-known food presence in America. His voice and recipes were more worldly than columns and books by the Kansas-born, New York-bred Clementine Paddleford or kitchen bibles such as the popular "The Can Opener Cookbook" by Poppy Cannon, "Joy of Cooking" or "Betty Crocker's Cookbook," which was published in the following decade. He died in 1985 and inspired the creation of a foundation that bears his name, whose mission is to preserve and promote America's culinary heritage and excellence.

"His food was way more sophisticated," says food historian and author Laura Shapiro. "He was a real cook first and foremost. He was grounded in food that people would really enjoy."

Today's readers will recognize "How to Eat Better for Less Money" as a product of its day. Recipes for molded tuna pâté or curry-in-a-hurry might startle generations raised on sushi and salsa. Then, too, ingredients Beard relied on -- leg of lamb, fresh fish -- have become expensive. The book also assumes basic cooking skills.

But although food fashions and circumstances have changed, no one has come up with better ways to both lower food costs and put good food on the table.

So, first of all, according to Beard:

· Cook, or learn to if you don't know how. (Yes, you can. In fact, the 60th-anniversary edition of Beard's "Fireside Cook Book" might be a good place to start; see our cookbook guide).

· Cook more than you need for one meal and freeze the rest.

· Cook seasonally. It's always a less-expensive way to buy produce, and it tastes better.

· Plan basic meals before you go shopping, and shop with a list.

Of course those guidelines mean forgoing most processed foods, "meal replacements" and takeout. But that's been part of the problem: Americans have gotten used to a diet that considers fast foods and takeout to be basics. And meals built around those are always more costly and often less healthful than home-cooked ones.

Beard's advice is echoed by just about every recent food writer who has tried to help us through trying economic times. It's only logical to buy food in the most economical ways and cook it.

Judith Weinraub, a former Washington Post staff writer, is conducting an oral-history project for New York University's Fales Library on James Beard's circle and the food revolution of late 20th century in New York.

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