Anointed the “Dean of American cookery” by the New York Times in 1954, James Beard laid the groundwork for the food revolution that has put America at the forefront of global gastronomy. He was a pioneer foodie, host of the first food program on the fledgling medium of television in 1946, the first to suspect that classic American culinary traditions might cohere into a national cuisine, and an early champion of local products and markets. Beard nurtured a generation of American chefs and cookbook authors who have changed the way we eat.
James Andrew Beard was born on May 5, 1903 in Portland, Oregon, to Elizabeth and John Beard. His mother, an independent English woman passionate about food, ran a boarding house. His father worked at Portland’s Customs House. The family spent summers at the beach at Gearhart, Oregon, fishing, gathering shellfish and wild berries, and cooking meals with whatever was caught.
He studied briefly at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, in 1923, but was expelled. Reed claimed it was due to poor scholastic performance, but Beard maintained it was due to his homosexuality. Beard then went on the road with a theatrical troupe. He lived abroad for several years studying voice and theater, but returned to the United States for good in 1927. Although he kept trying to break into the theater and movies, by 1935 he needed to supplement what was a very non-lucrative career and began a catering business. With the opening of a small food shop called Hors d’Oeuvre, Inc., in 1937, Beard finally realized that his future lay in the world of food and cooking.
In 1940, Beard penned what was then the first major cookbook devoted exclusively to cocktail food, Hors d’Oeuvre & Canapés. In 1942 he followed it up with Cook It Outdoors, the first serious work on outdoor cooking. Beard spent the war years with a brief stint in cryptography, but he primarily served with the United Seamen’s Service, setting up sailors’ canteens in Puerto Rico, Rio de Janeiro, Marseilles, and Panama.
When he returned to New York in 1945, Beard became totally immersed in the culinary community. Between 1945 and 1955 he wrote several seminal cookbooks (click here for a complete list). He appeared in his own segment on television’s first cooking show on NBC in 1946, and then on many other spots on television and radio. He contributed articles and columns to Woman’s Day, Gourmet, and House & Garden, served as a consultant to many restaurateurs and food producers, and ran his own restaurant on Nantucket. He became the focal point of the entire American food world.
In 1955, Beard established the James Beard Cooking School. He continued to teach cooking to men and women for the next 30 years, both at his own schools (in New York City and Seaside, Oregon), and around the country at women’s clubs, other cooking schools, and civic groups. He was a tireless traveler, bringing his message of good food, honestly prepared with fresh, wholesome, American ingredients, to a country just becoming aware of its own culinary heritage. Beard also continued to write cookbooks, most of which became classics and many of which are still in print. (See below for a complete list of Beard’s books.)
When James Beard died at 81 on January 21, 1985, he left a legacy of culinary excellence and integrity to generations of home cooks and professional chefs. His name remains synonymous with American food.