These days, the name James Beard is inextricably tied to the foundation that bears his name — and to the prestigious chef, restaurant and media awards it grants every spring. But long before a medal was hung around the first winner’s neck, Beard, who died in 1985 at age 81, was a hugely influential culinary figure.
A Portland, Ore., native, he celebrated farm-to-table cooking decades before the term became so ubiquitous as to practically lose all meaning. He hosted a nationally televised cooking show in 1946 — almost 20 years before Julia Child, who would become a great friend, starred in “The French Chef.” He wrote almost two dozen cookbooks, along with a syndicated newspaper column and countless magazine articles, and taught thousands of students to cook through classes held on the road and in his New York City townhouse (now the site of prestigious visiting-chef dinners four nights a week).
So many people know the name, but do they know the man? Elizabeth Federici, a filmmaker, and her friend Kathleen Squires, a food and travel writer, thought the answer was no, so they embarked on a documentary aimed at righting that wrong and illuminating the career and personal life of a man some have called “the dean of American cooking.” They used archival footage, vintage photographs, letters from Beard to friends and colleagues and interviews with his friends and peers to make “James Beard: America’s First Foodie.” The documentary premieres on PBS nationally on Friday at 9 p.m. as part of its “American Masters” series, which is also featuring a new documentary about Jacques Pepin and encore showings of previous installments about Child and Alice Waters.
The film, which I saw at the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference in Louisville, in March, doesn’t sugarcoat Beard’s difficulties, including the fact that he was kicked out of Reed College in the 1920s for being gay. After the screening, I spoke to Federici and Squires about their project. Below are excerpts of the conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Why do you think there hadn’t been a previous film about Beard?
Federici: Well, after four years, I can tell you, it’s challenging making a film about somebody who has passed, especially somebody who didn’t actually have a lot of footage. With Julia’s “American Masters,” she was still alive, and Jacques and Alice are obviously still alive. So it’s easier when you have a living, breathing person to interview.
When you started, were there perceptions about him you wanted to correct?
Federici: Yes. People have the impression that he was a food snob. And the thing is, he loved his peanut butter and jelly as much as he loved his caviar and foie gras.
What were your biggest obstacles?
Federici: The fact that he lived nine decades of the 20th century. The challenge was what do we put in and what do we leave out? We wanted to make sure that he came off as a full human being and that it wasn’t just a vanity piece that made him seem like he could do no wrong. Not that we wanted to vilify him, but we wanted to make sure people knew that he had his flaws, just like everybody else.
You included some potentially sensitive topics: the jealousy of Julia Child, plus that incident of what we would now call sexual harassment, which the great Jeremiah Tower talks about. Did you have any reservations about any of that?
Squires: No, we didn’t. Some of the interviewees were a little more old school, and at first had been a little reluctant to talk about his personal life. But eventually they shared.
What messages do you want audiences to come away with?
Squires: That the current food scene didn’t start with the Food Network. It goes back to pioneers like James Beard, even though he wasn’t the most photogenic or telegenic guy. But somebody had to be that person, somebody had to pave the way for Julia Child and Jacques Pepin. I think that he has the giant shoulders that so many people stand on today.
Federici: It was a time when we had really gotten away from regional American foods, and he reminded people, “Just look in your own backyard.”
Squires: I just want some of my nonfood friends to stop asking me, every time the awards come out, “Who’s James Beard?”