Missing: James Beard

Is he a forgotten character?

May 1, 2008

James Beard’s hometown is Portland, Oregon, but there’s no James Beard Boulevard, or park, or sculpture here commemorating that fact. There’s no James Beard House; that’s in Manhattan, where Beard lived much of his adult life (and where the James Beard Foundation makes its home).

Someday, there may be a James Beard Public Market, but no one knows for sure when that will be.

Have we forgotten James Beard?

james beard foundation

Indeed we have, says Laura Shapiro this week on Gourmet.com — and not just Portlanders. Shapiro (the author of Something From the Oven, among other food histories) argues that James Beard’s direct influence has been lost over time, but that his indirect influence lingers, perhaps unknowingly, in the generations of cooks who’ve followed him:

“Apart from an occasional mention of James Beard’s famous spareribs, or James Beard’s famous cream biscuits, his impact on American cooking has become anonymous.”

Invisible, too, perhaps?

Beard was an enthusiast of American cookery, of the best and simplest ingredients, long before Gary Paul Nabhan and the present-day explosion of farmers’ markets. (Beard loved Portland’s early-20th-century market.)

And now Beard’s influence may be so pervasive we don’t see it anymore — which, one could argue, may be the highest compliment.

In the foreword to the 2007 edition of Beard on Food, Mark Bittman writes that James Beard “gave you confidence, and he let you relax. In a time when serious cooking meant French cooking, Beard was quintessentially American, a westerner whose mother ran a boardinghouse, a man who grew up with hotcakes and salmon and meatloaf in his blood.” (And, if you read Delights and Prejudices, you know he also grew up on basil and parsley pesto, orange soufflé, and something called picnic paté, which contains chicken livers, boiled tongue, and pork fat, among many other things not for the faint of heart.)

Maybe that’s part of Beard’s legacy: Find the best ingredients, and the food itself will do the work, while you chill out in the kitchen.

Some things are worth remembering.

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1. by Holly on May 5, 2008 at 6:57 AM PDT

I have a massive tome--James Beard’s American Cooking--which is my Bible. I turn to it first and last, when I need a simple place to start on a recipe for pie, cake, or roast beef, without anything trendy added to it.

Also, it was written in the days before artificial fats were ubiquitous and there’s no time wasted with “diet” food or “low-fat” food. The pie crust recipes all start with butter or lard.

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