America’s First Foodie

Filed in Television by on May 13, 2017 0 Comments

A discussion about food in the United States would be incomplete without a long and appreciative nod to James Beard.

A cook, author, syndicated newspaper columnist, consultant and teacher, he’s the subject of a forthcoming PBS profile, American Masters — James Beard: America’s First Foodie, which will be broadcast on May 19 at 9 p.m. (check local listing). Written and directed by Elizabeth Federici, it’s the first of a series of delectable documentaries on culinary legends Julia Child, Jacques Pépin and Alice Waters.

James Beard

“James Beard was an enormously important figure in American cooking at a time when American cooking was really sort of a desert,” says television host and James Beard Award winner Ted Allan, succinctly summing up the theme of the film.

Also appearing in it are James Beard Award winners, an array of chefs, including Daniel Boulud and Wolfgang Puck, and James Beard Award Foundation President Susan Ungaro.

Fredrici claims that the back-to-basics food movement in the United States can be traced back to Beard, whom The New York Times dubbed the “dean of American cookery.” He spoke of the importance of localism and sustainability and was a forerunner of the farm-to-table movement.

After writing his first book, Hors D’Oeuvre and Canapes (1940), Beard wrote 21 more cookbooks, including How To Eat Better For Less Money and James Beard’s American Cookery.

In 1946, he hosted the first national cooking show on television, I Love To Eat. And in the late 1950s, he served as an advisor to the newly-opened restaurant in New York City’s Four Seasons Hotel, which closed last year. Until his death in 1985, he ran cooking schools in New York City and Portland, Oregon, where he was born in 1903.

Beard, whom food maven Martha Stewart hails as her mentor, inherited his gastronomic genes from his mother, a resourceful woman who operated a hotel and was a tremendous cook. She would send Beard to the market to buy supplies, and that exposure to the bounty of the land, plus a trip to Paris, endowed him with an appreciation of fine food.

When he was a young man, he gravitated toward the arts. Aspiring to be an opera singer, he then set his sights on a career in theatre. When he realized he couldn’t earn a living in either domain, he went back to his first love, food.

After starting a catering company, he wrote a cookbook, at a time when the authors of such books were usually woman. Apart from recipes, his cookbooks were filled with anecdotes and opinion. Beard also contributed to newspapers and magazines and endorsed products.

James Beard and Julia Childs, right

An outgoing person who was a natural as a raconteur, he had a talent for cultivating friendships. Among his friends was Julia Child, who was instrumental in introducing American readers to the wonders of French cuisine.

As he grew older, he championed the food and wine of the Pacific Northwest in both his classes and newspaper and magazine columns.

Beard was a foodie to the marrow of his bones. “Food is our common ground, a universal experience,” he once said, summarizing his philosophy.

 

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