James Beard, 81, a celebrated authority on American food and cooking who broadened the appetites of his countrymen by bringing a common-sense touch of the larger world into their kitchens at home, died of cardiac arrest Jan. 23 at New York Hospital in Manhattan.

At 6 feet 3 inches tall and 275 pounds, the bald and smiling Mr. Beard was in his very appearance a testament to the joys of the table. He was an innovator and a teacher and he summed up his success in these words: "The secret of good cooking is, first, having a love for it."

Mr. Beard made his own love and fascination with food evident in 24 books, including "James Beard's American Cookery," which appeared in 1972 and is now regarded as a classic; a syndicated weekly newspaper column which he continued until he was hospitalized Jan. 8 with kidney ailments; his own cooking school, which he founded in 1955 and eventually maintained in his Greenwich Village town house; hundreds upon hundreds of lectures and demonstrations in this country and abroad, and radio and television appearances that included "Elsie Presents," the first commercial food program on television. (It aired in 1946 and was sponsored by Borden's, whence its name, and produced by Patricia Kennedy Lawford).

Like Craig Claiborne and Julia Child, Mr. Beard was familiar with the great culinary traditions of Europe -- his first book, "Hors d'Oeuvres and Canapes," which appeared in 1940, began with a quotation in French that he did not trouble to translate. But he also emphasized the glories of things from the fields and forest and streams and shores of the United States. Moreover, he held a general conviction that Americans knew best what to do with them.

But if he was the champion of the American hamburger, he also was the champion of steak tartare. He liked sour cream, but with the passing years he introduced his readers to yogurt and advised them to use spinach and arugula in their salads. In his later books he devoted more pages to fish and the gifts of the sea than to meat and poultry. There even came a time when he dropped the term cheese tartlet and took to calling it quiche. A slice of raw onion on a tiny brioche with a bit of mayonnaise, which he recommended some 45 years ago, became one of the most successful hors d'oeuvres in the history of the cocktail party. In 1941, Mr. Beard published "Cook It Outdoors," the first book devoted entirely to the art of barbecue. In these and countless other ways he enlarged the horizons of cooking in this country.

"We Americans have been intimidated for far too long by other people's opinions on what we should eat," he wrote in "Beard on Pasta," which was published in 1983. Americans shouldn't be bound by other peoples' opinions and rules, he said, "least of all mine."

His advice was to try all kinds of things.

"Old fashioned cookbooks, including my early ones, used to treat recipes as formulas," he wrote in "The New James Beard," which appeared in 1981 and, in a rare concession to the need of some to diet, recommended less salt and fat than did his earlier works. "But in cooking along with my friends, colleagues and students, I came to find the formula style boring and rigid. Listening is much more useful than prescribing what, and everybody learns best through thinking, not just performing."

Apart from his own books and his teaching and speaking, Mr. Beard frequently wrote introductions and endorsements for his friends. He gave his stamp of approval to products ranging from the Cuisinart to frozen foods. For this he was criticized by some on the ground that he had compromised the appearance of objectivity.

Mr. Beard continued to endorse. Moreover, he continued to praise the benefits of canned corned beef hash and to sing of the glories of potato chips and marshmallows.

James Andrews Beard was born on May 5, 1903, in Portland, Ore. His father, Jonathan, was a city official. His English-born mother, Mary Elizabeth, was a former hotel keeper and lover of food. In "Delights and Prejudices," an autobiography published in 1964, the author recalled the wonderful meals prepared during his childhood by his mother and her Chinese cook.

Young Beard attended Reed College and the University of Washington. He traveled to Europe as a young man and then went to New York to seek a career on the stage. He appeared in productions of "Cyrano de Bergerac" and "Othello," but shortly returned to the West Coast. There he was a radio actor and announcer (he did food commercials, among others).

Although he never formally studied cooking, his interest in it was well enough established so that from 1932 to 1937 he gave private lessons. In 1937, he returned to New York. The following year, he and William Rhode, who later was editor of Gourmet magazine, and his wife, Irma Rhode, opened a catering service called Hors d'Oeuvres, Inc. It was located on East 66th Street, which is to say in the heart of the neighborhood in which potential clients were most likely to be found, and it was an immediate success.

They had to close the business in 1942 after this country got into World War II. Mr. Beard served briefly as a cryptographer in the Army and then managed a farm in Pennsylvania. From 1943 to 1946, he worked for the United Seaman's Service, and directed clubs in Puerto Rico, Rio de Janeiro, Italy and France.

He then returned to New York and began his broadcast career with "Elsie Presents."

In a profile of this large showman with the deep-throated chuckle, the great appetite and the delicate palate, Mary Rourke wrote in Newsweek in 1977 that he was "America's most sensuous cook." Even Mr. Beard's critics agreed, she said, that he had "more of a feel for food than Craig Claiborne or Julia Child. His patriotic passion for indigenous cooking has made him the acknowledged authority on American cuisine, and he promotes it like a proud grandparent."

This sense not only of food and cooking, but also of the atmosphere and the ambience of preparing it, of the earthiness and the utter necessity of preparing something as necessary as food itself, is evident in a passage in "The New James Beard:"

"Great cooks were never more appreciated" than today, Mr. Beard wrote. "The razzle-dazzle is a great stimulant. But what truly stimulates, sustains, and rewards good cooking is honor at home. It gives me joy to see so many couples cooking together these days, and to watch their children growing up where they belong, right in the kitchen, as I did long ago."

Mr. Beard, who never married, leaves no immediate survivors.