Classic Cookbooks: The James Beard Cookbook

The James Beard Cookbook is probably the best-known work of the Dean of American Cookery (later Gastronomy), but it is not, according to his most recent biographer John Birdsall, his best. That honor would go to Delights And Prejudices, Beard’s 1964 memoir—not of things that happened to him, but things he ate. That book begins:

When Proust recollected the precise taste sensation of the little scalloped madeleine cakes served at tea by his aunt, it led him into his monumental remembrance of things past. When I recollect the taste sensations of my childhood, they lead me to more cakes, more tastes: the great razor clams, the succulent Dungeness crab, the salmon, crawfish, mussels, and trout of the Oregon coast; the black bottom pie served in a famous Portland restaurant; the Welsh rabbit of our Chinese cook; the white asparagus my mother canned; and the array of good dishes prepared by both of them in that most memorable of kitchens.

Delights And Prejudices is the sort of book that makes you hungry. Even as a small boy in Portland, Oregon, James Beard knew what good food was, and both his mother and the Chinese cook, Jue Let, made sure he had plenty of it. The book contains recipes, but they’re the old-fashioned kind, written out in paragraph form with the understanding that the person reading them already has a basic idea of how to cook. And there’s a sense that—although Beard claims his taste memory is pure and uninfluenced by sentimentality—the food Beard ate as a child cannot be precisely recreated. Elizabeth Beard and Let were both skilled professionals—before James was born, they had run a hotel kitchen together—and while they lacked modern cooking equipment, they had the benefit of the freshest and best ingredients, the sort that probably weren’t widely available to most Americans by the ’60s. (And maybe not in the early 1900s, either, unless you were a professional cook with connections and the clout to demand the very best white asparagus from the vegetable seller and the knowledge to protect yourself from being duped.)

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The James Beard of Delights And Prejudices is a sensualist. The James Beard Cookbook, on the other hand, is the work of the Dean of American Cookery himself, a comprehensive cookbook akin to Fannie Farmer (which he loved) or Joy Of Cooking (which he did not). This book begins with a recipe… for boiling water.

This is what you do: Fill a saucepan with cold water and put it on the stove. Adjust the burner to high. Let the water heat until it bubbles and surges—and that is boiling water.

The James Beard Cookbook, as Beard explains in the introduction, is a book for two types of people: those who literally do not know how to boil water and those who know the basics, but not how to make anything that tastes good. But fear not: Uncle James is here to help! “I assure you in all seriousness that many of the recipes in this book are not much more complicated than these instructions on how to boil water.” (My grandmother, the original owner of my copy of The James Beard Cookbook, fell into the second category. I rescued the book from her house after she died, along with her copy of Mastering The Art Of French Cooking, Vol. 1. Both books were pristine. I don’t think she ever used them. I imagine that, when she bought the books around 1970, she was preparing for life as an empty-nester, and thought she would take up cooking. Instead, she and my grandfather became world travelers.)

The picture on the cover of my copy, the 1970 revised edition, shows an enormous jolly bald man in a plaid shirt and striped apron laughing with joy as he stands at a table outdoors stuffing an enormous fish: the Santa Claus (sans beard) of American Cookery. This is clearly a man who loves his food and knows how to prepare it. You are in good hands. The headnotes are brisk and informative and don’t get much more personal than this one for Braised Beef, Bordeaux Fashion: “This is a peasant dish from the Bordeaux region in France, and I first ate it there with the local pickers during grape harvest time.” And then to business.

James Beard teaching a cooking class at home in 1970
James Beard teaching a cooking class at home in 1970

Beard’s original goal as a food writer was to teach Americans how to appreciate the French bourgeois cuisine that he loved, which he did by writing recipes for boeuf bourguignon or pot au feu and giving them less-intimidating American names. His true genius, however, was the realization that American food could have its own terroir: it could capture the spirit of French food without slavishly following the recipes. Instead, American cooks should imitate the habits of the best French cooks or his mother and Let: they should use the best local ingredients they can find and let that guide their preparations. He makes that point quite clear at the outset of The James Beard Cookbook: “Buy good food, and buy often.”

This was somewhat radical advice in 1959 when The James Beard Cookbook first appeared. (Knowing its audience, the publisher, Dell, first issued it as a cheap paperback and then, a year later, reissued it in hardcover for more serious cooks, or maybe those who had worn out their paperbacks.) Americans were still in the thrall of canned and frozen convenience foods, and Beard wanted to rescue them from the tyranny of the TV dinner. He doesn’t come out and say so in The James Beard Cookbook, of course—why risk alienating your readers?—but his recipes call for fresh meat and vegetables and he makes a point of demystifying kitchen processes, like chopping and poaching and making a French-style omelette (although he includes two other, simpler preparations for the less confident cooks). For this reason, The James Beard Cookbook has aged extremely well; you could still give it to a novice cook today, especially if they’re interested in Western European-style food, and they should feel confident enough to make a meal from it, even Braised Beef, Bordeaux Fashion.

But there is very little of James Beard, the human being, in The James Beard Cookbook. There’s more of him in Delights And Prejudices, but, as John Birdsall argues in his own wonderful biography, The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life Of James Beard, the Beard persona had already been well-established by 1964. This was, in part, because it took a village to write a book by “James Beard,” populated by editors, typists, and coauthors, including Isabel Callvert, who gets credit on the title page of The James Beard Cookbook, who all worked together to tame his meanderings into standard, authoritative prose. Beard was also a notorious thief of other people’s recipes; he claimed it was compensation for helping them along in the food world, but he never bothered to warn them in advance.

The other reason there’s so little James Beard in “James Beard,” though, Birdsall writes, is because Beard, like many queer people in the first half of the 20th century, was deeply closeted. That he was gay was an open secret to his friends—many of whom were queer themselves—and in the food world at large, but to his fans he was just their bachelor uncle. (In fact, Beard lived with the architect Gino Cofacci for the last 30 years of his life; Cofacci, Birdsall writes, was probably the first person with whom Beard had ever been truly in love, but the relationship, of course, remained a secret.) Beard had learned the consequences of being a gay man in America early: he had been expelled from Reed College in 1921 after he was overheard hooking up with a male professor in his dorm room. After his early dreams of acting died and he drifted into party-planning and catering and then, finally, cookbook writing and teaching, his editors encouraged him to hide his natural gossipy, campy personality behind the authoritative “Dean of American Cookery.” Beard’s dream was to write a chatty, personal cookbook that relied on taste memory rather than instruction, something like The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (another queer icon!), but the closest he ever got was Delights And Prejudices.

The house on West 10th Street in Greenwich Village where Beard was living in 1969 was within shouting distance of the Stonewall Inn—Birdsall found evidence that Beard was at home the night of the uprising on June 28—but Beard was 66 years old by then and, Birdsall writes, “shame and fear were not things people of James’s generation could fling away so easily, like pennies at cops. James had become a master at inventing myths about himself: He needed to.”

It took Birdsall seven years to write The Man Who Ate Too Much. He had access to Beard’s manuscripts and letters to friends and the datebooks where he recorded what he ate, and he was able to interview several people who knew him well, including gay men he mentored. All of his helped dispel some of the myths Beard created about himself. But before Beard died in 1985, he’d requested that his personal effects, particularly those that provided definite proof of his queer identity, be destroyed.

Now James Beard is an icon, literally: his image appears on anything stamped with the imprimatur of anything issued by the James Beard Foundation. His house on West 12th Street is a temple to American gastronomy, or at least to the people who have given themselves the authority to determine what American gastronomy is and who does it best. It dwarfs his books and anything else that hints that the Dean of American Cookery was once an actual human being. Birdsall comes as close as anyone to reviving him. But much of James Beard himself remains unknowable. Some myths will be enshrined as truth, and some truths will remain a mystery.