by Virginia B. Wood
The Solace of Food:
A Life of James Beard
by Robert Clark,
foreword by Julia Child
Steerforth Press, $16, paper
Seattle food writer Robert Clark selected the perfect biographical subject to illuminate the history of 20th-century American gastronomy in the late James Beard (1903-1985). Clark has written a fascinating and insightful biography of the "dean of American cooking." The primary focus of Clark's work is that "The subject of what people eat and how they eat it is at the center of their lives and their civilization." There is no better personification of American cuisine and its relationship to our culture than James Beard. Clark's book is rich in detail, presenting Beard's personal relationships, professional accomplishments, and perspective on American food against the backdrop of contemporary culinary history.
Beard was born in Portland, Oregon to English immigrant Mary Jones Beard and John Beard, the son of a pioneer family that traveled to Oregon in a covered wagon. Mary Beard was a woman of independent means who cooked for families and operated a successful boarding house before her marriage. She doted on her only son and shared with him her love of music, opera, and theatre. Mary Beard invested her life in grooming James for the career in the arts that she herself truly wanted. She also imparted her approach to food, making sure James shared her "frankly sensual and critical appreciation of its aesthetic qualities." The Beards ate better than most, not due to class or wealth but because Mary had "tastes based on travel and experience, she knew how to shop and how to cook." Her years as a professional had taught her to develop relationships with farmers, dairymen, butchers, and fishmongers, to scour markets and gardens for the freshest local ingredients. James was an astute observer and later built quite a career on the techniques and dishes he'd learned in Mary's kitchen.
James inherited both his stature and girth from his mother. By the time he left home to attend Portland's Reed College, he was a portly man well over six feet tall, with rather owlish looks. His physical dimensions were a hindrance to his theatrical aspirations and his weight would be a lifelong problem. Clark carefully weaves the details of James' life as a young adult: expulsion from Reed college because of a homosexual relationship with an instructor, voice studies in London, his early attempts at a career on the New York opera and theatre stages, into a greater tapestry of early 20th-century history. James Beard never accomplished the theatrical fame both he and Mary envisioned but he eventually succeeded practicing the art learned closest to home.
The young James Beard often catered parties for friends or gave private cooking lessons in his home during his early years in New York. He had no notion of making his living cooking, it was just a pleasant, easy way to augment his meager salaries and occasional stipends from Mary. Eventually, his cooking skills and charismatic persona began to attract the kind of attention he'd craved as an actor. The late Thirties found James on the road to becoming what he would later describe as the "world's great gastronomic whore." Beard went on to write for newspapers and magazines, appeared on radio and television, consulted with manufacturers and endorsed products, taught cooking classes and published cookbooks for than 40 years. Clark parallels the steady progress of Beard's culinary and food-writing endeavors to the evolution of food writing from the "domestic cooking tradition and homemaking journalism" to the serious, consumer-oriented information and criticism of today.
The impact of Beard's attitudes and teachings is still shaping American cuisine. His professional generosity was such that James Beard acted as mentor to and promoted the careers of many current American food luminaries. Award-winning authors such as Craig Claiborne, Paula Wolfert, Barbara Kafka, Marion Cunningham, and Alice Waters are but a handful of the people who claim James Beard as a significant influence. In the foreword she wrote for this new edition, Beard's longtime friend Julia Child recounts the story about her first visit with the man she greatly admired. Beard was the person in New York she most wanted to meet and Child was very gratified when he praised her first cookbook to a class full of students.
This well-researched and meticulously documented historical work is a worthy companion to any serious culinary collection and a fascinating chronicle of American gastronomy. n Contributing editor and restaurant reviewer Virginia B. Wood writes the Chronicle's "Food-o-file" column and is currently at work on her first cookbook.