The Life and Times of James Beard

By Evan Jones

Knopf. 366 pp. $24.95

IN THE history of American cooking there are three towering figures: Fannie Farmer, whose Boston Cooking School Cookbook, first published in 1896, established the form of the modern cookbook and standardized weights and measures; Irma S. Rombauer, whose The Joy of Cooking (1931) demystified the kitchen for middle-class cooks and expanded the American menu; and James Beard, whose many cookbooks and countless appearances in public forums encouraged us in the belief that cooking could be more fun than chore. Other noted chefs came after them, chiefly Craig Claiborne and Julia Child, but these three pathfinders are our true gastronomic trinity.

Now we have, in Epicurean Delight, the first biography of Beard. It appears 5 1/2 years after Beard's death at the age of 81 and is written by a respected authority on American cooking; among Evan Jones's previous books are American Food: The Gastronomic Story and The Book of Bread. Jones knew Beard in his later years, after Beard's books began to be published by the house of Knopf and edited there by Jones's wife, Judith Jones, so he brings to the biographer's task a personal acquaintance with his subject, a blessing any biographer would envy yet one Jones only occasionally turns to his advantage; for all the affection and admiration (and exasperation, too) with which it is written, Epicurean Delight is an oddly flat, unengaging book that never manages to get very far beneath the facade its subject presented to the world.

Indeed, Epicurean Delight unintentionally raises a fundamental question about biography: If a person's private life bears no discernible connection to the public work for which he becomes known, is the story of that private life really worth writing? Jones tells us, in no particular order of importance, that Beard was a peculiar mixture of kindness and selfishness; that he was not loath to take credit for the work of others; that he traveled incessantly and moved in a densely populated circle of the witty and privileged; that he was a homosexual who from an early age "sensed more and more his differences from others" -- he tells us all this and more, some of it at least mildly interesting, but he rarely manages to demonstrate any causal relationship between it and the work Beard did.

Perhaps this is why Jones ends each chapter save the last with a batch of recipes created by Beard or otherwise connected with his life. Though the cynical might argue that this is mere padding for a book containing little else of consequence, a case can be made that it is an acknowledgement, however inadvertent, that to know Beard's recipes is to know Beard -- that beyond the cooking he did and the words he wrote about it, his life holds no real interest for us. The life of a politician or military leader, filled as it is with conflict and incident, can scarcely be separated from the record of his career; even the quiet life of a writer, lived as it mostly is at the writing table, is inextricably bound to the work that emerges from that table; but in the lives of many others there is so little to shed light on the career that a strict chronicle of the career, as opposed to a conventional biography, may be more appropriate.

THIS IS certainly true of Beard, with only two exceptions. Growing up as he did in the upper Northwest, in the household of a mother who loved to cook, Beard developed an appreciation for native American cookery, as well as the compromises it has struck with other cuisines, that served him well; and his abortive career as actor and opera singer fed his ambition -- he wanted "To be a star. Name above the title" -- at the same time that he developed the theatrical talents he brought to his performances as the nation's most celebrated chef.

But the most important source of his success was simply the prodigious amount of work he did. His "major talent," Jones says, was "his enthusiasm for his knowledge of gastronomy"; he pursued the expansion of that knowledge with an ardor that never really dimmed. When he wasn't cooking, or eating someone else's cooking, he was traveling in search of undiscovered foods and new ways to cook them; he had friends and lovers, and he maintained a stout interest in the stage, but his real life was his work, and his work defined him.

Though that work often took him overseas, his abiding interest was in the cooking of the United States -- or, more precisely, in helping the food of this country fulfill the rich potential of the country's heterogeneity and fecundity. In stating what Jones calls "his career-long thesis," Beard wrote in 1949 that "America has the opportunity, as well as the resources, to create for herself a truly national cuisine that will incorporate all that is best in the traditions of the many people who have crossed the seas to form our new, still-young nation"; the contribution Beard himself made to the development of that cuisine is his monument, one that should endure for generations.

However likeable or disagreeable Beard may have been in private -- like most of us, he seems to have been a bit of both -- in public he was enthusiastic, chatty, energetic; he had a "talent for establishing rapport with others," whether they were eating hamburgers in a Sixth Avenue saloon or Dover sole in a Fifth Avenue penthouse. He was many things but he was never a snob; in a business that encourages condescension and exclusivity, he was above all else the people's chef -- waxing rhapsodic about the spectacular meals that could be turned out on a backyard barbecue, declaring his undying love for junk food, turning up his nose at American attempts to mimic nouvelle cuisine.

He was, one reviewer wrote in due praise for his magnum opus of 1972, James Beard's American Cookery, the person "who has done more than anybody else to popularize good food in America." It took Julia Child to Americanize the continental touch and Craig Claiborne to legitimize serious cooking as a social and journalistic convention, but the ground was laid by Beard. That he looked the part, with his Falstaffian girth and manner, was an added bonus; not merely did he teach us how to have fun in the kitchen and at table, but over the years he came to personify those pleasures. Some no doubt will say that in the end his love of food and drink killed him, and perhaps a narrow reading of the facts proves the case; but he lived more than four score years -- many more than many a righteous jogger -- and the betting here is that he died smiling.