The amazing thing to discover about James Beard, on his death yesterday at 81, is that he was only one man. Not only did he seem bigger than life -- eight feet tall and 600 pounds during his prime, I would have guessed -- but he also appeared to be two or three generations of food writers and cooking teachers all by himself. For much of the last 45 years -- since Beard wrote his first cookbook (in six weeks) -- he was American food.
A dozen or so years ago, when I was a fledgling writer -- from the provinces of Washington, yet -- I worked up the nerve to call Beard and ask if he would participate in a bread tasting, a comparison of the new French breads from Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington. Without hesitation he agreed and offered his own kitchen for the tasting.
That was my introduction to James Beard in person: monumental, generous, dogmatic and possessed of the prodigious knowledge that validated his dogma. After that I watched his volume of work grow -- to more than two dozen books, and articles in more magazines and newspapers than one might think possible. And I saw his kitchen grow to a two-story glass-walled extravaganza that still managed to be homey. And I saw the man shrink, with ill health dragging over several years.
But neither his work nor his influence declined as the rest of the country caught up with him, and American cooking became refreshed, restored, rediscovered in the process. Everywhere one turns and delves, Beard has been there before. Regional food? Beard had been writing on it for nearly half a century. Simplifying and updating cooking methods? Check Beard's tomes. Discovering American food products? If there was a fine cheese being made in Iowa or a free-ranging chicken being raised in Montana, you would probably hear the news first in one of Beard's columns. And if Beard seemed to know everything about food, it was only because whatever he hadn't researched he'd probably invented in the first place. Beard was in himself a national archive.
Above all, though, James Beard was a teacher. For decades aspiring cooks were transformed into disciples in his Greenwich Village kitchen. And a succession of assistants went on to gain prominence in their own right. Just as Beard loved to discover a new sausage maker or chocolatier, he couldn't resist an eager student.
He became a generic term ("What do you think you are, a James Beard?") and he continued to adopt new food products, new kitchen equipment, new cooks and new writers, to take them under his wing and to spread the word about them. He seemed never able to say no; just look at the number of introductions to cookbooks Beard has written. His appetite for new products and for people eclipsed even his appetite for food. He was a legend, an aspect he encouraged not only with his public persona but his claims for a private one in which he preferred, he said, to cook while naked. His first gastronomic experience, he liked to say, was eating a whole onion raw when he was a boy. Coincidentally or not, his first famous dish -- indeed, it became a fad -- was tiny onion sandwiches.
He traveled constantly and appeared everywhere. "I used to think I had to go out every night," Beard reminisced as he turned 80 in 1983. By then he went out seldom. But he still entertained. His brownstone was the most important site a cookbook author might want for a book party. And he still wrote. He was working on "Menus and Memories," which was to tell of special moments in his life and the dishes that went with them. But he didn't pretend he was going to have time for much more, and in fact never got beyond the first chapter: "That may be skidoo," he said to me in that birthday interview. And it was.