Who Was James Beard Anyway?

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Happy James Beard Day!

On Monday evening, at Lincoln Center in New York City, the biggest names in the food world will walk--no, strut--down the red carpet to the glitzy James Beard Foundation Awards Ceremony, where nominees hope to win an award that’s become known as the culinary equivalent of an Oscar. Ah, the James Beard Foundation Awards, aka The Beards.

Winners are bestowed, Olympic athlete-style with a coveted medallion bearing the likeness of the man for whom the awards are named. Parties and crazy after parties follow. Champagne is poured. Lives are changed by James Beard awards. Yet, what the heck do we know about James Beard? The man from Portland, Oregon, who launched a delicious revolution around the dinner table. Why is he just a figurehead of mythical proportions?

Wikipedia dishes up the facts: His parents headed west on the Oregon Trail, he learned to love oysters at an early age while summering on the coast, he was kicked out of Reed College in the 1920s for engaging in “homosexual activities.” (Oh, those stupid bad old days.) He then joined a performing troupe, traveled and performed in Europe, lived in France and he eventually returned home to the states and shared his love of cooking in more than 20 cookbooks and by teaching classes around the country.

It’s in between the covers of those decidedly old-school books that you really get a sense of James Beard, especially the way he generously shares credit for many of the recipes. Many dishes come from family friends ("Mrs. Rorer's Hamburg Steak). And the way he describes lavish gatherings he puts on might make you long to jump into a time machine and go back to one of those splendid shindigs.

It was at one of his famous cocktail parties that Jim introduced his friends and fans to Julia Child, whose groundbreaking Mastering the Art of French Cooking he enthusiastically supported. (She repaid his kindness by leading the charge to form the James Beard Foundation when he died in 1985.)

It’s amazing to thumb through his 1970s-era American Cookery and marvel at how much has changed. There are several recipes for squirrel, ("Squirrel has been written about rapturously for years, and it has long been associated with elegant dining..." HUH?), a rendition of jellied salmon mold and something called poor man’s butter, which sounds a lot like guacamole.

Still, there’s so much in there that’s considered cutting edge now: an exploration of unusual greens and veggies such as salsify, a root also known as oyster plant, a guide for making all sorts of pickles and a chapter on candy making. Oh, and an entire guide devoted to wrapping stuff in bacon. Chefs who currently dig preparing offal would certainly get a kick out of recipes for stuffed kidneys and various preparations of brains.

In a perfect world, chefs who win a James Beard Foundation award should devote some energy to keeping Beard's memory alive by cooking some of his favorite dishes at their restaurants for at least one special meal.

Maybe the winner of the best chef in the Pacific Northwest could lead the charge on that front. Good luck to this year’s nominees:

Jason Franey, Canlis

Ethan Stowell, Ethan Stowell Restaurants

Naomi Pomeroy, Beast, Portland

Gabriel Rucker, Le Pigeon, Portland

Cathy Whims, Nostrana, Portland

You can watch the (very long) awards live beginning at 6 p.m. Eastern.

Hungry to learn more about James Beard? Check out this documentary made by Oregon Public Broadcasting.