“I may have brought French cooking to America, but Jim brought American cooking to America.” Julia Child
I was about 30 when I came out as a foodie. It was when I decided that I might want to spend part of my Sunday afternoons looking through a glass door of an oven rather than a glass screen with a huddling bunch of over-padded guys in helmets.
You see, guys didn’t cook much back then. Unless, of course, it was in restaurants. Even though they often worked the same hours as men, women were expected to don their aprons the moment they walked in the front door.
We male foodies still watched television. Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, The Two Fat Ladies, Graham Kerr, Bobby Flay, The Iron Chef, Emeril, but the most influential of all to me was James Beard.
What I related to most was James Beard looked a little like me…pudgy, moustache, balding, bowtie, glasses on a chain. And he cooked simpler things, things with only a few ingredients, things you could make in 20 minutes, things you could cook over charcoal, things that I could cook.
In 2017, PBS paid tribute to my inspiration when they produced the film, “James Beard: America’s First Foodie”. Even if you’re only a level teaspoonful as food-obsessed as I am, you should see the film.
James Beard was always a pudgy guy, growing up in his gourmand mother’s Portland, Oregon boarding house; he would shop at the local market for his mother’s kitchen.
At the age of 20, after being expelled from college for the crime of homosexuality, James Beard went to Europe, pursuing a career in music and drama. He knocked around theatre with little success on both sides of the Atlantic until, in his mid-thirties, he settled in New York City and, in 1937, launched the first of his ventures into the field of food, Hors d’Oeuvre, Inc., a catering company. It was followed in 1940 by James Beard’s first cookbook, Hors D’Oeuvre and Canapés. It was the first American recipe book that I know of written by a man. It was one of the many that I read and borrowed from.
James Beard’s books were different than other cookbooks. They weren’t just page after page of lists of ingredients and instructions; there was humor, history, and heartwarming tales of many of the dishes.
The film, part of PBS’s “American Masters” series, takes us through the 22 books James Beard created, his newspaper and magazine writing, his television show, his cooking show, his involvement in the creation of the world’s most ambitious restaurant, his teaching, his belief in what ultimately became the farm-to-table movement, his charity work, and his personal life through the reminiscences of friends, business associates, restauranteurs and chefs. Opinions come from some of the most-respected people from the world of cuisine: Daniel Boulud, Jacques Pepin, Alice Walters, Wolfgang Puck.
Beard was the quintessential American cook. Well-educated and well-traveled during his eighty-two years, he was familiar with many cuisines but he remained fundamentally American. He was a big man, over six feet tall, with a big belly, and huge hands. An endearing and always lively teacher, he loved people, loved his work, loved gossip, loved to eat, loved a good time. Julia Child
What I like most about “James Beard: America’s First Foodie” is the fast pace of the film. It zips between vignettes, revealing one thing about the man and then another. It starts and then suddenly it’s over, leaving you wanting for more.
James Beard made my life a better place. I no longer had to apologize for being a nerdy, geeky foodie. I even learned that a home-cooked meal was one of the very best ways to seduce a woman.
There’s a scene near the end of “James Beard: America’s First Foodie” with a dramatic photograph taken at the Oregon shore by a Eugene reporter.
“The first time he saw the photograph, he cried”, the narrator tells us. “He knew it was the end.”
James Beard may have been the “First Foodie”. I may have been one of his first followers. But there are legions of us now. After seeing the film, you might want to join us.
“James Beard: America’s First Foodie” is part of the San Miguel Food In Film Festival. It will be shown at the Centro Cultural El Nigromante in Belles Artes at Noon on February 22. For more information and tickets go to https://www.foodinfilmsanmiguel.com.
Co-sponsor of the film, the restaurant Zumo, will be featuring four or five of James Beard’s recipes during the Food In Film Festival. Zumo is located in Villa Limon, Quebrada 93, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.