June 3, 1985 | Vintage Insatiable
James Beard: The Father of Us All        

        In the beginning, there was James Beard. Before Julia, before barbecuing daddies, before live-in kitchens and the art of culinary clutter, before a wine closet in the life of every grape nut and the glorious coming of age of American wines, before the new American cooking, chefs as superstars, and our great irrepressible gourmania… there was James Beard, our Big Daddy.

        Joy of Cooking was clearly a bible. As a child, I must have assumed it was written by prophets and saints. Fannie Farmer? A name of such alliteration and rural evocation had to be fictitious, I imagined… like Betty Crocker and Aunt Jemima. But James Beard was clearly visible as he made his rounds, teaching, tasting. Wreathed in chins, he smiled at me from the cover of my very first cookbook. As a primer it was perfect, assuming knowledge. “If you are among those who have never boiled water, this is what you do: fill a saucepan with water and put it on the stove. Adjust the burner to high.”

        I cannot believe that there is an American chef or a culinary professional – writer or editor, teacher or critic – whose life he did not touch. Many of us studied with him, meeting over seven pounds of mushrooms to be minced and squeezed into duxelle, long before we realized that his world was to be our world too. I cannot count how many hours we food worldlings traded gossip over bites of honeyed ham and pesto’d noodles in his garden and sun-drenched greenhouse dining room, honoring an endless parade of cookbooks by his extended “family” of cronies and protégés. And we are gathering again next week to celebrate Jim.

        Reading his autobiographical Delights & Prejudices has imprinted an indelible image of the young Jim in my mind. Being a westerner, Oregon-born, made him seem somehow mythically American. I who had grown up in a Midwestern Velveeta cocoon envied him his boyhood Dungeness crab; the salmon and great razor clams; the Welsh rabbit of the Chinese houseman, Let, even the chicken jelly from the time he was three and “lay abed with malaria… refusing all food except spoonfuls of the most superb chicken jelly that ever existed.”

        Of course, I would find my way into his booked-seasons-ahead cooking class. It was in the brownstone west of Sixth Avenue with the subway rattling below, before he moved to West 12th Street and turned a medical lab into a dream kitchen. What a shock to find red-and-black ranges that switched on if you leaned against a button – electric stoves, what a perversity, we muttered.

       “I hate the smell of gas,” he would say.

        Self-taught, by Dione Lucas refined, and by Mastering the Art of French Cooking mesmerized. I considered myself a journeyman cook. In Jim’s kitchen, I first suspected how far I had to go. His knife caddy alone was a challenge – dozens of handles, impressive tools of unimagined specialization at the ready. “I can’t resist knives,” he would sway.

        I remember exotic cooking liquids – vanilla-bean-steeped cognac, for instance, stored in old Guerlain cologne bottles – and behind the shower curtain in the bathtub, a cache of Chinese porcelain. Even the toilet paper was a declaration of sensuality, the ultimate in softness from somewhere down south.

        He would sit inside the U formed by those infernal ranges, his amazing bulk balanced on the tiniest wicker perch, then rise to show the proper twist of wrist required for the perfect omelet, his hand on top of yours timing the wiggle. And he would demonstrate how to make supernal thick mayonnaise using only a fork on a dinner plate, the fork almost lost in his huge hand. The power was awesome. He could knead a pound of bread dough in one hand. One class remains unforgettable because I still use the recipe for lamb poached in a peppery broth and served with a Mediterranean mince of raw garlic, black olive, lemon peel, and parsley. Indeed, there was garlic in every dish that night (except for the plum tart). No wonder I still feel too much garlic is never enough.

        When Jim initiated his seminars on taste, I was there. He had us compare a dozen peppers for heat, explore the salinity of assorted salts and the pungency of oils, and we proved that a properly frozen roast properly cooked was in no way inferior to a similar roast fresh. I’ll never forget Jim’s face as he sliced the brisket and popped a big chink of fat into his mouth. “I’m definitely a fat boy,” he cried, with the mischievous grin that seemed to say, “Aren’t we lucky to get paid for living like this?”
        If we trace the evolution of Jim Beard’s taste through his twenty food books, we see how it provoked, inspired, affirmed the evolution of American taste. The early Fireside Cookbook fueled a new generation of outdoor cookery. His image lured men into the kitchen. And his American Cookery surely nurtured our new pride in the American kitchen. “We’re Americans, with a whole melting pot of cultures behind us, and we don’t have to do things the classic way,” he wrote in Beard on Pasta. “We can do as we please.”

        Asked to do a soup cookbook, he declined. “I love soup,” he told his editor at Knopf, Judith Jones, “but I really only love half a dozen soups. I think of soup as something where you open the refrigerator and use whatever happens to be there.” Would he suggest someone to do a book on bread? she asked. A few months later, he called and recommended himself. “There is no smell in the world of food to equal the perfume of baking bread,” he wrote.

        For restaurant consultant Barbara Kafka, who traveled with him and flipped the heady skillets when he could not, Jim’s influence is clear. “He was a man of the world, traveled, complicated. He was comfortable everywhere, and he helped make Americans comfortable. He was large in every way. He was generous, and generous with his ideas.” The greatest restaurateurs borrowed his stream-of-consciousness food musings to create their menus. For Joseph Baum, putting together the Four Seasons, for that institution’s later renaissance under Paul Kovi and Tom Margittai, and for Baum’s Windows on the World, Jim’s taste memory was a vast repository of ideas.

        Jim had style. He was dazzling in his black-and-white-checked, cape-collared greatcoat, and he made the blue denim smock elegant. He despised the word “gourmet” gourmee, he would pronounce it, and say, “Gourmet is a magazine.” He would have loathed the idea that he helped make American food chic. He hated chic. “He restored our pride in great American foodstuffs,” Judith Jones observes. “He made American cooking honorable.”

        Like the gifted musician with perfect pitch, Jim had unerring taste. He defied tradition, never using the same china pattern for two courses, reminding us how satisfying it is to eat in the kitchen…defying doctor’s orders every day in fact as well as fantasy. “I could live on a desert island and just have plenty of good bacon and be very happy,” he told a reporter from Cuisine. “And hams. I grew up in a family that believed it was shocking not to have a cooked ham in the meat safe all the time.”

        One morning four years ago, when I could not escape the demand implied by a Sunday Times headline – Meals-on-Wheels Scrimps to Feed Aged – Jim was the first person I called. “Don’t you think we could fill some Christmas baskets?” I asked him. He had read the same story. “Of course,” he replied. “But shouldn’t we do something about getting these people weekend meals.” He phoned Barbara Kafka, she phoned twenty restaurateurs, and I reached Sugar Foods president Donald Tober and restaurateur George Lang, setting off a chain of responses. And Citymeals-on-Wheels was created to find funds to help feed our city’s homebound elderly – neighbors whose austere existence is such a pitiful contrast to the privilege, indeed the excess, of our own.

        Jim helped many gifted cooks find their own perfect pitch. For the less gifted, he left his recipes and the legacy of joy – the dedication to pleasure and to sharing. At 78, he published The New James Beard because he never stopped being new. At 81, he could not tie his own shoes, but he sailed to Alaska and planned a cruise of the of  South China Sea. He’d been very ill many times and always bounced back – by will, I thought, and a hunger for life. Days before he died, in January, he talked with Larry Forgione of An American Place about an extraordinary party planned by Forgione and Jonathan Waxman and Melvyn Master of Jams. It would be a gathering of American wine-makers and a dozen chefs from across the country – his pets and protégés among them – to mark his eighty-second birthday and benefit Citymeals, the cause he championed.

        And so the chefs are gathering: from California, Wolfgang Puck, Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower, Mark Miller, and Bradley Ogden, joining Paul Prudhomme from New Orleans, Jimmy Schmidt from Detroit, Edna Lewis from Chapel Hill, and the New York contingent, Forgione, Waxman, the Four Seasons’ Seppi Reggli, and Felipe Rojas-Lombardi of the Ballroom. The night of June 3, 850 food lovers and friends of Jim’s will assemble in the vast restaurant complex at the heart of Rockefeller Plaza.

        Chefs will be stationed in the Sea Grilllink, Savories, the American Festival Café… in the kitchens themselves and in the magical Summer Garden, offering skewered salmon cheeks wrapped in bacon, red-pepper pancakes with corn and salmon caviar, roast suckling pig with adobo, marinated cinnamon pork loin, blackened redfish, gingered crème brûlée, and Jim’s own strawberry shortcake. And because of the generosity of the wine-makers and chefs, of Restaurant Associates, the Rockefeller group, Loews Regency and Morgan’s hotels, the Gifford/Wallace P.R. firm, and most especially, of the Seagram Classics Wine Company (the benefit sponsor and service coordinator), every dollar paid for tickets will go directly to deliver meals.

       (There are no tickets left, but anyone who wishes to share the moment can receive our book, A Celebration of James Beard – a collection of the 28 tribute recipes, Jim’s words and recipes, and memories and vignettes from his food-world friends  - by sending a $100 contribution to Citymeals-on-Wheels, New York City Department for the Aging, 280 Broadway, New York New York 10007.)

        The birthday party is now our tribute to a man whose life was about savoring every deliciousness, living each moment, and sharing the abundance.

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