Drawing a bead on Beard

January 30, 1994|By Charlotte Balcomb Lane | Charlotte Balcomb Lane,Orlando Sentinel

Title: "James Beard: A Biography"

Author: Robert Clark

Publisher: HarperCollins

Length, price: 357 pages, $27.50 The adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same is apparent in America's attitudes toward food -- at least according to Robert Clark in his biography of the late cookbook author, writer and schmoozemeister James Beard.

In making his assessment of American food mores, Mr. Clark takes the long view, covering not just the 46 years of Beard's career, but more than 120 years of societal and dietary changes.

He uses Beard's rise to fame as the "dean of American food" as the pencil with which to trace America's circular obsession with health, foreign food, convenience and gadgetry, cookbooks, dieting and status restaurants.

The biography, which is alternately exhaustively detailed and diplomatically vague (especially when describing Beard's affairs in the gay community), begins in the early 1860s with Beard's mother, Mary.

She was the greatest influence in her son's life. She transferred to him her passion for food -- not just as nourishment but as an outlet for creative expression -- and imprinted on him her love of theater, drama, music and the company of artists.

Beard trained as a singer and tried to succeed as a stage actor. He failed, and resorted to catering high-class hors d'oeuvres in New York only as a way to make a living.

Included in the story of Beard's life are dozens of people who helped him in his career or whom he helped, including Julia Child, cookbook authors Marion Cunningham and Barbara Kafka, and chefs Larry Forgione, Alice Waters and the late Felipe Rojas-Lombardi.

The book also details the excesses in food, alcohol and work before Beard's death at the age of 82 on Jan. 22, 1985. And it chronicles the peevish side of his personality kept carefully hidden from public view, the side that gossiped, betrayed friends and blew up in towering tantrums and unreasonable rages when crossed.

Despite Mr. Clark's sometimes unflattering examination of James Beard, he sums up by writing that no other person will ever match Beard's importance in American food culture. Beard was an archetypal figure: part wise and portly food professor, part hedonist.

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