When James Beard died on Jan. 23, 1985, the American food community began a mourning process that now, almost six years later, has produced an homage to the man who singlehandedly shaped American cooking for nearly 40 years.
The homage comes in the form of three very different "Beard" books. One is a picture of Beard compiled by the James Beard Foundation from notes, anecdotes, stories and recipes contributed by nearly 200 of his dedicated friends and colleagues. Another is a new edition of Beard's own "Delights and Prejudices," with an important new forward, that has been released by Collier Books. This was a tale of his early years, which he laced with more than 150 of his favorite recipes. And finally, there's a surprisingly unflattering biography by Evan Jones, which is a weak, soulless chronicle of Beard's life.
Barbara Kafka, Beard's closest friend during the last two decades of his life, has assembled the recipes and recollections of friends and colleagues into "The James Beard Celebration Cookbook" by The James Beard Foundation, edited by Barbara Kafka (William Morrow, $24.95), a memoir that celebrates the life of "that most lovable and loving guru of American food, the one and only James Beard," to use Julia Child's words.
James Nassikas, former owner of the Stanford Court Hotel in San Francisco, who established a salon at that hotel over which Beard presided joyously during the later years of his life, confesses the little secret about how they met. James Villas, who for many years wrote about food for Town and Country, describes a steak dinner at which Beard ate everything in sight, downed one too many single malt scotches and began singing from Parsifal. Restaurateur and close friend Joe Baum remembers Beard as a man who "cooked the way he dressed. He would combine plaids, stripes and prints, and it worked -- and he'd do the same with food."
Kafka introduces the "Celebration Cookbook" with the autobiographical conversations she taped with Beard in which he talked intimately and openly about aspects of his life. In describing his mother, for example, Beard says, "I was her only child, and she managed me. She didn't bring me up. She directed my life rather than paying any attention to it ... It was always lonely."
Beard was not prone to analysis, he was intuitive by nature -- both in his personal life and in culinary life. In his conversations with Kafka, which he hoped would some day form the basis of a memoir, we see rare glimpses of self-revelation that give us new insights into Beard's character.
This is a book that will make you laugh, and possibly cry. Ultimately, though, it will lead you into the kitchen (which is where Beard thought everyone belonged), perhaps to prepare Richard Sax's Corn and Shrimp Chowder with Tomatoes, or Mimi Sheraton's Italian Meatballs and Sausages with Rigatoni, or Jeremiah Tower's Aunt's Coleslaw.
Proceeds from the "Celebration Cookbook" go to the James Beard Foundation, which is dedicated to remembering the history and promoting the future of American cooking.
In the forward to this new edition of "Delights and Prejudices, A Memoir with Recipes" by James Beard with a forward by Barbara Kafka (Collier Books, $12.95), Kafka brings Beard back to life, and then gently steps aside so Beard can talk about his first gastronomic experience. "I was on all fours," Beard writes. "I crawled into the vegetable bin, settled on a giant onion and ate it, skin and all." And so began a life filled with a passion for food.
Beard had an astonishingly sensitive palate, and a taste memory that allowed him to remember with perfect accuracy a food he had eaten 20, 40, even 60 years before. Beard could talk about food in a way that could make a biscuit rise and leave you smelling it as it baked. Never mind that the biscuit was baked by his mother in 1910, you could still smell it.
In this gastronomic memoir, the preeminent culinary authority of this century takes us on a joyful, romanticized visit to the people, places, foods and events of his early life, garnishing the book with 150 recipes. Of all the books he had written, Beard once confessed to me, this was his favorite. It was certainly his most personal, and stylistically his best book.
Beard was a man who bordered on becoming a national folk hero. He read Dostoyevsky at the age of 6. He studied singing with Caruso's voice teacher in London. He acted in Hollywood movies and once on Broadway. He slept on black satin sheets in elegant European bordellos. He picnicked with Alice B. Toklas.
In the 1940s, Beard stumbled into a career in food. And it was the enormity of Beard's presence, in physical stature as well as personality and culinary skill, that drove American cooking from obscurity to world pre-eminence.
James Beard reveled in life. He loved to laugh and gossip and to walk along the beach on a misty morning. He loved to travel, and had visited most of the world before he was 30. He was as comfortable dining in a first class cabin on the Queen Mary as he was collecting eggs from a hen house for breakfast. He loved clothes and fabrics, especially Thai silk bowties, in bright, orange and green. And he loved affection, as well as attention.
But below the surface, Beard's life was filled with complexities, interpersonal turmoil and machinations. He constantly pitted friends and colleagues against one another. During the last two decades of his life, his declining health and bouts of depression made his life unmanageable, not only for those closest to him, but also for Beard himself.
In "Epicurean Delight, The Life and Times of James Beard" by Evan Jones (Knopf, $24.95), Jones reduces Beard's life to an unflattering chronicle. The bon vivant that was Beard is missing -- his impish smile, his rumbling laugh that could fill an auditorium, his joyous musings about everything from covered wagons to Covent Garden. Jones has chosen to make very little mention, and to offer no interpretation, of the darker side of Beard's character that fueled his temper and his greediness and that left Beard deeply tormented; nor does Jones deal meaningfully with Beard's homosexuality.
As a result, this biography is a distorted and disappointingly shallow portrait of a man who deeply touched the hearts of three generations of cooks, chefs, restauranteurs, hoteliers, students and readers.
Carl Jerome, author of "The Good Health Microwave Cookbook," was a colleague and friend of James Bread for many years.