AS James Beard goes, so goes the nation.

From his first cookbook in 1940, when he introduced--and had to define--crepes, to the first video cooking show, which he pioneered in 1946, Beard has spoon-fed Americans the trends that have shaped their kitchens--and, for that matter, their shapes.

Twenty-plus cookbooks later Beard, who has practically become a generic term in American cookery, is again holding forth. In "Beard on Pasta," published this month, he says, "We Americans have been intimidated for far too long by other people's opinions on what we should eat." We shouldn't be bound by rules, shouldn't bow to anyone's authority, "least of all mine."

This culinary whirlwind--who wrote his first book in six weeks and ever since has simultaneously juggled syndicated columns, magazine articles, cooking school, demonstrations around the world and those books that compose a whole shelf of modern classics--turns 80 tomorrow.

And entering his 81st year, the dean of American cooking has slowed down to a gentle breeze. "For the first time in my life I've spent one year here and not moved," Beard said recently, practically melting into his reclining chair in his Greenwich Village townhouse. His orange and gray shirt was unbuttoned here and there, over pale blue jeans, and his glasses hung askew on his chest; he looked more than ever like a bigger-than-life teddy bear, his newly relaxed image reinforced by mellow chuckles. "Usually I'm on the jump."

On a typical morning Beard reads two newspapers and works on his weekly syndicated column. Afternoons are for recipe testing with his assistant, Richard Nimmo. He teaches one class a month. And that's about it; he doesn't go out more than one evening a week lately. For his birthday it will be dinner with close friends (probably hundreds of them, said one of those invited) at New York's Four Seasons restaurant, which is in itself a close friend. "I used to think I had to go out every night," Beard said, smiling.

Now, staying home more often and in keeping with his latest book, he's been eating a lot of pasta. In his earlier books he reported that he ate a steak for a quick dinner when he was tired. Now it's pasta. For breakfast, "five mornings a week I have just tea. Wednesday and Sunday I have some fruit for tea--don't ask me why," he mused. Lunch is the food he and Nimmo have tested, or a sandwich or salad. Dinner is meat or fish or pasta.

Beard's house has mellowed around him, even with its stunning new two-story skylight that serves as wall and roof of the ground-floor dining room and kitchen. Next to them, his study is filled with cookbooks interrupted by little but the black marble fireplace and toys for his latest in a long line of pug dogs.

He's lived in New York since 1937, in between his travels and summers in Oregon, his culinary home base. After trying a career in theater and radio on the West Coast, Beard came to New York then looking to make a career out of food, supporting himself by cooking for his supper in friends' homes. In 1938 he opened a catering shop, Hors d'Oeuvre Inc., with Bill and Irma Rhode, and began to change the taste of New York (the tiny brioche-and-onion sandwiches alone became one of the most oft-repeated recipes in hors d'oeuvre history). The parade of cookbooks started, then "Elsie Presents," the first commercial food program on television, sponsored by Borden's, and in 1955 Beard's own cooking school, launched on such a shoestring that he had to wash his own dishes in the shower.

Quiche had not yet "become overdone to the point where it is now a menace."

In Beard's early days Americans did more regional cooking, and were content to follow a seasonal pattern; there was no shad from January to June as there is now, and salmon from "everywhere" to turn the season into 12 months.

World War II changed eating habits tremendously, he reflected. Not only were Americans seeing other countries firsthand and tasting the cooking of Europe, they were seeing marketplaces and being influenced by their profusion, variety and quality. Many Americans were seeing for the first time what Beard had grown up with in Oregon, a family tradition of fine food and an absorption with its preparation.

Beard's books in themselves, covering the gamut of culinary subjects, document the tastes of America for more than four decades. If one wants to know what Americans were eating--or were about to eat--and how they were entertaining, as well as what foods and kitchen equipment were available to them, the Beard library is a rich primary source--the world according to Beard: 1940

Beard's first book, "Hors d'Oeuvre and Canapes," was so worldly as to start with a quote in French--untranslated. Cheese tartlets hadn't yet become quiches; the drink at cocktail parties was not white wine but martinis--not bone-dry, but 3-to-1--or scotch and soda, sherry or "perhaps one of the cola drinks so much in demand." So it was a bold Beard who suggested oysters with white wine. For parties he liked cheese balls and stuffed vegetables, cocktail sandwiches and individual aspics. Chips and dip, sure; but with homemade potato chips unless "you know a good brand," he suggested, and heat them before serving. This book introduced Beard's unconscionable love affair with canned corned beef hash; he has ever since had a fascination with new products and has always been a brand-name dropper. 1941

The barbecue became the subject of technical literature with Beard's "Cook it Outdoors." Wartime rationing was not yet of concern; the pie crusts were all-butter. Raw vegetables and dips had appeared, but the dip would today be considered wishy-washy: simply cottage or cream cheese with parsley, chives and the merest touch of mustard. Shoppers could find pine nuts and sorrel. Whole wheat was Beard's first bread recipe. People who liked meat rare were labeled "sophisticates." They and "gourmets" were frequently addressed in this book; they hadn't yet outworn their welcome. But even sophisticates who made Hungarian goulash used a mere 2 teaspoons of paprika for 1 1/2 pounds of meat ("American" goulash had a puny half-teaspoon for 2 pounds of meat). 1944

"This is a functional age," Beard announced in "Fowl and Game Cookery"; so he left out the truffles and foie gras. Chicken was a luxury, and butter had grown scarce. So had time; thus he emphasized recipes that could be completed in less than an hour. Chickens came still wearing their feet, sometimes with unborn eggs or cockscombs, and often had to be singed to remove their feathers. The new frozen chicken, said Beard, was "quite delicious."

Chicken in those days meant fried or creamed, but turkey might be roasted, boiled, braised, broiled or fried. Americans were substituting margarine or bacon fat for butter, but they had shallots, armagnac and California wines.

Beard's recipes were still in text form and, by today's standards, vague. Sugar was not yet evil--it even went in the chicken soup. He suggested prepared biscuit mix to top pot pies, and was enamored of frozen vegetables.

Yogurt was nowhere to be found. 1949

"The Fireside Cookbook" cost a mere $5 for 1,217 recipes and 400 color pictures. Wartime rationing was over and the new frozen foods warranted a whole chapter that even touted frozen raw oysters. Americans were still in a hurry, enough to warrant Beard recommending frozen french fries, muffin mix, and frozen asparagus with hollandaise from a jar for a Quick Company Dinner. Cheese tarts were still not called quiches, but he had souffle's--even the light flourless fruit versions so prevalent in nouvelle cuisine today--fondues and cassoulet. Mentioned were fresh chervil and tarragon, three kinds of sweet cherries and gooseberries, chayotes and leeks. White asparagus could be found on occasion. Zucchini hadn't overrun America's gardens; Beard included only three recipes for it. Beard was brazen enough to recommend that lamb be cooked pink, but hadn't yet started butterflying it or rubbing it with mustard. While Americans were ready to cook with wine, they had to have prosciutto defined for them. A whole chapter addressed "The Calorie Question," but included gaining as well as losing weight. And there was a section on "pastes," which included a recipe for homemade noodles but not made with a pasta machine. 1954

Pastes had lost their chapter in the updated version of "How to Eat Better for Less Money" (with Sam Aaron); this budget-cooking book had no rice or grain chapter, either, nor a chapter on fish. It did, paradoxically, suggest keeping caviar on hand for emergencies. "Know your butcher," it recommended, in a time when you could still find a butcher. That butcher would sell you a muzzle or snout of beef, pigs' ears and tails. Quiche was finally introduced, along with lasagna, croque monsieur, risotto and gravlax. Among the 15 pasta dishes were homemade green fettucine.

Recipes had grown sufficiently technical to list the ingredients separately.

Beard, continuing his fascination with new products, suggested for the emergency shelf canned beef stew, cream of mushroom soup and cream of celery soup, though he considered frozen foods too slow to defrost for emergencies. "It has plenty of glamour," he said of coq au vin made with canned chicken and Kitchen Bouquet, and for quick boeuf bourguignonne he recommended canned beef stew cooked with wine and canned vegetables, served on quick-cooking rice. The "natural" era was yet to nudge out the fascination with postwar technology. 1963

"Hors D'Oeuvre and Canapes" was updated. The main change from 1940? The martini was drier--9-to-1. 1965

Beard no longer needed to define prosciutto, and croissants emerged. Pasta was served for breakfast in his "Menus for Entertaining," and it was made with a "noodle machine." His menus were largely foreign and specifically French: Beef salad Parisienne, bourride. But Mexico was making strong inroads. An era of wholesomeness and freshness was replacing the "instant foods or packaged mixes" Beard now warned his readers against. His breads once again included whole wheat and his choucroute garnie was a less fatty version than earlier ones. Cocktail party recipes had reduced dips to one measly recipe (a year later he was calling them dunks). It was still the era of the beef eater--these days Beard allowed for up to a pound a person in his serving sizes--and potatoes weighed in heavily.

A year later the blender started whirring through his books. 1970

Yogurt appeared with the '70s; Beard introduced it in his revised version of "Eat Better for Less Money." He also introduced meat tenderizer, "among the most valuable aids to good eating at low cost." But cost did not deter his putting macadamia nuts in chicken salad. Also new in the 1970 edition: pasta given its Italian spelling (though the lone fresh pasta recipe had been deleted from 1954) and given a whole chapter with rice and grains; freezing leftovers; pesto (even if basil was still likely to be found only in Italian markets); and dried mixes for brownies, brown gravy, pancakes, soup and mashed potatoes. 1972

Spinach and arugula were being tossed into salads, and the amount of paprika in goulash increased to at least two tablespoons. Even more surprising, this was in "American Cookery."

Increasingly Beard's books emphasized techniques rather than being just collections of recipes. And recipes became more detailed. 1974

The meat-and-potatoes era was over; in "Beard on Food," all meats including chicken were allocated 29 pages, while fish--which in earlier books had been denied a chapter altogether--took 32 pages. And fish was increasingly served raw, as sushi, ceviche and gravlax.

Beard was exploring meat alternatives and lowering fats. He was doing more to vegetables--salting and draining eggplant, pure'eing and shredding, charring and peeling his peppers. His larder still contained cans of corned beef hash, but truffles, too. And pasta--albeit boxed rather than homemade--warranted a whole essay.

Other foods worthy of essays were fondue, tart tatin, creme brule'e and salt--he straddled the fence on that, in one chapter praising it and in another eschewing it. Blenders were taking a back seat to Robot Coupes, which would soon become Cuisinarts and then generic food processors.

And 35 years after Beard gave a bare passing mention to low-calorie crackers he was noticing, "Today practically everyone you meet is doing the diet thing." 1979

Beard updated "Fowl and Game Cookery" from 1944, and thumbed his nose at those dieters: he was adding more butter and cream and flouring the chicken. There were real changes--adding recipes from Mexico, North Africa and Japan, adding white wine to his saute'ed chicken--and linguistic ones--boiled chicken became poached, "bitey" pasta had become "al dente" and celery was in stalks rather than heads. And he had become more specific: freshly grated parmesan, Spanish or Italian sausage, Greek or Italian olives, freshly ground pepper. Herbs had become dried, clams fresh. Margarine had disappeared from his text. Sugar was dropped from the chicken broth, yogurt substituted for sour cream in the duck. The biggest change, though, was in the chickens themselves: cheaper, more uniform, cleaned and plucked, faster-cooking birds were now available. 1983

In "Beard on Pasta," he writes that he has grown to detest the term "gourmet." He begs Americans to throw rules to the winds--and himself leaves the paprika out of the goulash altogether. Nowadays a mere 100 recipes plus variations cost $15, but Beard packs a lot of education into the prose. And drums home the message that it is "time to stop worrying and start enjoying."

American cooking always had ignored the rigid rules that characterize many cuisines, said Beard at his desk, which was piled high with books ready for signing. But, he noted, we did not necessarily value what we had.

After decades of flirting with foreign cookery, Americans in this decade are looking homeward again. It is a time of revival for the homey virtues of American foods. New York now has four farmers' markets, said Beard, "and they flock to them." The liaison between producer and buyer is being renewed. Grass-fed chickens are returning to specialty stores.

But what about the "new" American cuisine? It is not new, Beard declared. "I think it is an attempt to make something that's newsworthy but isn't. Breads look the same, cakes look the same, a steak does the same thing, potatoes get the same treatment." Experimentation needs healthy skepticism; of new dishes one must ask, "Well, would you want it again?" But as for updating regional cooking, "Whatever happens to most of it needs to be done," Beard said. That was the spirit behind his 1981 book, "The New James Beard."

What is new is the influence American cookery is having in other countries. Three-star French chefs have taken home American corn stick pans, have learned to undercook vegetables the American way and are serving their breads hot, as is the American tradition, Beard noted.

What cookbooks are left to be written? "We should go back to cookbooks that are specialties," suggested Beard. Pasta books and charcuterie books rather than "huge basic tomes." He, of course, is again hard at work on just such a book. To be titled "Menus and Memories," it will associate special dishes with special moments in his life.

"That may be skiddoo," Beard forecasted. He leaned back, grinned, and winked, all the more like the well-loved teddy bear, also just entering its 81st year.