Dishing up James Beard's life and food world he created

January 02, 1994|By Eleanor Ostman | Eleanor Ostman,Knight-Ridder News Service

The late James Beard would have relished Robert Clark's book, "James Beard, a Biography" (HarperCollins, $27.50), because it dishes up generous portions of juicy tidbits, so savory to Beard, who loved to gossip about his cohorts in the food sphere. Anyone who's hungry for the delicious details of the New York food scene in the second half of this century, with Beard as master chef during the development of postwar cooking styles, will find Mr. Clark's book equally appetizing.

The biography is a feast of details about Beard's 82-year life in Portland, New York and Europe. Furthermore, Mr. Clark's writing style is full of exceptional grace, perception and wit, and the joy of reading his entertaining biographic prose is reason enough to explore Beard's life.

In the book's first chapter, Mr. Clark seemingly drifts off the tracking of Beard's story into essays about the home-economics movement and community cookbooks, but by Chapter Two, the format clarifies; these asides about the development of American food are collateral to the story of Beard the man. Linked to Beard, and before that, to his British mother, a great cook of eccentric lifestyle who shaped her son's food style and artistic future, is a narrative of food progress for the past century.

Interwoven in the story of Beard's culinary ascendancy is Mr. Clark's assessment of the decline of American eating, moving away from the best of regional foodstuffs to commercially produced foods promoted by the "home ec" contingent, so everyone in America was persuaded to put marshmallows in their salads. It was Beard's lifelong passion for regional fare that helped remind America of what we had lost and where we should go to regain foods' basic pleasures.

Beard was in his late 40s, living on the largess of friends, by the time he'd written his first cookbook and achieved some measure of renown.

Mr. Clark also tells how Beard was the first to appear on a regular televised cooking show. While the show, "I Love to Eat," was not commercially successful in those fledgling days of TV, it certainly was the forerunner for legions of other television cooks following Beard's lead.

Mr. Clark never met Beard, who died in 1985, and that's surprising to the reader because the details of Beard's life are written with such intimate focus. The idea to write a Beard biography drifted into Mr. Clark's consciousness as he lazed in a hammock in Tuscany, perhaps his last idle moment before several years of intensive research into food history, interviewing Beard's closest colleagues and writing about the intriguing epicure.

"The only people who didn't want to be interviewed were the few who didn't feel Beard's homosexuality should be discussed," said Mr. Clark, who bares that predilection from its earliest onset in Beard's Oregon youth to its being the reason he was expelled from Reed College in Portland to a lifetime of liaisons. "It is an awfully frank book," says its author.

Such details were gleaned from Beard's letters and from the recollections of his friends.

Beard's books remain in print and, at the James Beard House in New York, the food faithful come to dinners cooked by the RTC world's best chefs.

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