Often hailed as "The Father of American
Cooking," Beard's name was synonymous for American food. The author of
best-selling books; a pioneer in television and founder of his famous cooking school,
Beard has sometimes been maligned by those who look at the man, and not what he
represented. When he died in 1985, he left a legacy of identity from the simple home
cook to the professional chefs.
James 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. Summers
were spent at the beach at Gearhart, Oregon, fishing, gathering shellfish and wild
berries, and cooking meals with whatever was caught.
After a brief stint at Reed College in Portland, in 1923
Beard went on the road with a theatrical troupe. He lived abroad for several years
studying voice and theater, but returned to the 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. It revolutionized what then
passed for cocktail food by offering more substantive fare. With the opening of a small
food shop called Hors d'Oeuvre, Inc., in 1937, he finally realized that his future lay in
the world of food and cooking.
The publication of the first major cookbook devoted
exclusively to cocktail food, Hors d'Oeuvres & Canapés, in 1940, was followed by
Cooking it Outdoors, in 1942, the first serious work on outdoor cooking.
Beard spent the war years briefly in cryptography, but
primarily 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, he became totally
immersed in the culinary community. Between 1945 and 1955 he published Fowl and Game
Cookery, The Fireside Cookbook, Paris Cuisine, James Beard's Fish Cookery, How to Eat
Better for Less Money (with Sam Aaron of the Sherry-Lehmann wine store), The Complete Book
of Outdoor Cookery (with Helen Evans Brown), and The Casserole Cookbook. He appeared in
his own segment on television's first cooking show on NBC in 1946, followed by many other
spots on television and radio. He contributed articles and columns to Woman's Day, Gourmet
and House and 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
In 1955 he
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
He also continued to write cookbooks, most of which became
classics and many of which are still in print: The James Beard Cookbook (1959), James
Beard's Treasury of Outdoor Cooking (1960), Delights and Prejudices (1964), James Beard's
Menus for Entertaining (1965), James Beard's American Cookery (1972), Beard on Bread
(1973), Beard on Food (1974), James Beard's Theory and Practice of Good Cooking (1977),
The New James Beard (1981), and Beard on Pasta (1983).
When James Beard died at 82 on January 21,
1985, he left a legacy of culinary excellence and integrity to generations of home cooks
and professional chefs. He was hailed as "The Father of American Gastronomy" and
his name remains synonymous with American food.
(This text was written by The James Beard Foundation)