Flying to Portland, Oregon, James Beard’s hometown where the 2010 IACP Conference was being held, I found myself rereading Epicurean Delight, the biography of Beard by my husband Evan Jones that was published five years after Jim died in 1985. So many lovely and telling reflections of his character surfaced that I wanted to jot them down but I didn’t have a notebook handy on the plane so I wrote them on what we publishers call the end papers of the book. In Epicurean Delight the endpapers are illustrated with a montage of immediately recognizable action drawings that the artist Karl Stuecklen sketched of Jim at play in his kitchen—whisking the eggs, sniffing the soup, tending the grill, and just contemplating his domain. As I filled in all the blank spaces I could find, writing across Jim’s forehead or the apron covering his ample chest and tummy, suddenly the words seemed to be popping out of Jim himself and the whole mosaic of bons mots came vividly to life.
Here is a sampling of the quotes starting in the upper left hand corner:
- “In the beginning there was James Beard . . .” wrote Nora Ephron.
And from Beard himself:
- “Designing hors d’oeuvres is not different from designing sets and costumes . . . Food is very much theater.”
- “We’re Americans and can do as we please.”
- “When I walk into a market I may see a different cut of meat or an unusual vegetable and think, ‘I wonder how it would be if I took the recipe for that sauce I had in Provence and put the two together?’ So I go home and try it out. Sometimes my idea is a success and sometimes it is a flop, but that is how recipes are born. There really are not recipes, only millions of variations sparked by someone’s imagination and desire to be a little creative and different. American cooking is built, after all, on variations of old recipes from around the world.”
- “A cookbook should reflect the personality of the author along with his or her kitchen technique. Some cookbooks are put together like paper dolls. There is no feeling of humanness in them. I write about things I like and the way I like them.”
- “Hands are our earliest tools. Cooking starts with the hands which are so sensitive that when they touch something they transmit messages to your brain about texture and temperature.”
- “Freshness in vegetables is more important than anything else.”
I realized as I read these excerpts how much I had absorbed from Jim Beard over the years. I always loved working with him because he helped me develop a more relaxed and creative approach to cooking and I could tell that he was much more comfortable working at the stove that having to tap out words on a typewriter. He welcomed any distraction. If the phone rang and it was Mrs. X from Iowa City he would happily take the call and go through all the steps of the recipe she was having trouble with to figure out why her cake hadn’t risen. Around noon he’d begin to get restless for lunch so we would descend the stairs to the kitchen where he would swing open the door of his large fridge and sniff around for leftover bits that he had tucked away, composing in his taste imagination a harmony of flavors. Half an hour later we would sit down to a simple and always delicious lunch, often interrupted by the sudden appearance of Larry Forgione, the chef proprietor of An American Place, or perhaps Carl Sontheimer, the father of the Cuisinart food processor, seeking advice or enlightenment. You didn’t need Google in those days if you knew James Beard.
I came to know him when one day in 1961 I cheekily picked up the phone myself to ask him if he would look at the advance proofs of a big book on French cooking that we at Knopf were about to publish. He didn’t hesitate to say yes and after devouring it in just a few days, he called me to tell me how impressed he was with the book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and that we must be sure to bring these unknown authors over from France to introduce them to the American public. Then he took charge and persuaded Dionne Lucas to put on a French dinner party at her restaurant, The Egg Basket, and he personally invited the key players of the food world to attend and meet the authors of Mastering.
That was Jim Beard—utterly sure in his judgment when he spotted the genuine article, unhesitatingly generous in his support, creative but at the same time realistic, and above all blessed with perfect pitch when it came to his palate. In a sense he was born before his time and he encountered considerable obstacles as he tried to awaken the American palate to appreciate really good home cooking and to make the most of our extraordinary regional produce. His cooking began in the marketplace in Portland where he would roam with his mother among the farm stands, selecting only the best to be transformed into delectable dishes that she served in her boarding house, or to visit the Chinese quarter with Let, their Chinese cook, so they could bring home the cod cheeks that the fish monger always saved for them.
The first morning of the IACP Conference we took a Being James Beard Tour in downtown Portland and although urban growth has swallowed up the outdoor market where Jim and his mother shopped, the memories still remained. Robert Reynolds, who has sometimes been called the poet chef of Portland, read passages that he had selected from Epicurean Delight at each stop and I could see that he was deeply moved connecting with this man he had never really known before.
The last night of the Conference I had the good fortune to eat at Robert’s very special restaurant, Chefs Studio. The place consists of one room large enough to accommodate a dozen or so at a big table. Votive candles were lit and strewn across the white paper-covered dining table, set for fourteen with big glasses awaiting good Oregon Pinot Noir. On three sides the rough walls consisted of exposed beams and a few posters while the remaining wall was open to the kitchen. There we could watch Robert and his crew of four performing their ballet, adjusting flavors before carefully plating each dish.
From start to finish the food was superb, exactly what Himself would have loved. All the dishes were based on the season’s bounty: freshly gathered morels, tangy ramps and radishes and radish leaves, young spinach greens molded into little vegetable timbales, tiny berries and slim stalks of early spring rhubarb. The only item that had traveled from afar was the grass-fed lamb from the Southwest. As we were relishing its good, pure-lamb flavor, we talked to the rancher who had nurtured the herd—a young woman who clearly loved her calling—and we all exchanged sample bits of our life in food, ending with more stories about Jim.
To me that evening at Chefs Studio was the highpoint of the IACP Conference and I wished that there could be more of this kind of sit-down dinner where people could get to know each other and experience the regional products. Meanwhile I look forward to a visit again in a few years when the dream of the James Beard Public Market that is being planned will have become a reality and I can wander through the stalls and visit with the vendors and learn more. I hope I’ll find some cod cheeks to bring home.