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Two New Beard Biographies Ignite Bonfire of the Foodies : Books: The chef who once called himself 'a butter boy' is the topic of tasteless bickering whipped up by followers who wish to inherit his richly caloric mantle.

December 27, 1990|SUSAN BRENNA

NEW YORK — A biography, with recipes. A collection of reminiscences, also with recipes. How incendiary can two books be, when half their contents are devoted to measurements of candied ginger and beef shins?

Yet gossip is flaring like nasty little grease fires from every professional range in New York. The appearance of two new books on the life of James Beard has ignited nothing less than a "bonfire of the foodies."

The principals in this food-family quarrel include publishing's most respected editor of cookbooks, a woman spoken of by chefs and writers with awe and fear; a brilliant and acerbic best-selling cookbook author who compiled a book of reminiscences to exorcise Beard's ghost, but finds herself more enmeshed than ever in his Byzantine court intrigues, and--hovering over the proceedings--the mischievous spirit of the "great one" himself.

James Beard was the outsized, exuberant culinary pioneer who virtually invented the role of foodie in 45 years of preaching what he extravagantly ate ("I'm a butter boy," he liked to brag). Once a monument in life, he has been elevated since his death five years ago at 82 to the status of icon, partly through the foundation that bears his name.

Without family but with a talent for inspiring passionate attachments, he assembled in his lifetime a constantly shifting field of acolytes and assistants, proteges and protective friends, many of whom live on to furiously debate the image of Beard emerging from the books. But that's not all they're debating. At issue, for some, is whether they themselves were properly characterized for their closeness and importance to the master.

"There is this atmosphere of people fighting over the remains--'I'm the one who really understood him,' and 'I'm the person who should inherit the mantle, or the whisk, or whatever,' " says Robert Clark, editor of the "Journal of Gastronomy" and the author of yet a third upcoming Beard book. "It's a whole sort of Beardian saga in itself, everybody fighting over the relics."

"I feel that this particular going-on is petty and trivial," says Nach Waxman, owner of the bookstore Kitchen Arts and Letters, gossip central to the New York food world. For all that people claim to be doing as their utmost to honor Beard, Waxman says, "All the conversation and sniping--it's dishonoring Beard's memory."

"Not at all," says Peter Kump, a cooking teacher and president of the James Beard Foundation. "Jim loved gossip. Jim would really be delighted, because the lines are burning up with people comparing the books, and what they think is right about them and what they think is wrong with them. It's all very Beardian." This was a man, after all, who started each day in his West 12th Street townhouse with two dawn hours of phone gossip.

The book attracting most of the whispered criticism, "Epicurean Delight: The Life and Times of James Beard" (Knopf, $24.95), is a biography by food writer Evan Jones. He is married to Beard's venerable book editor, Judith Jones, whose stable of luminaries includes Julia Child, M.F.K. Fisher and Marion Cunningham, author of the recent editions of the "Fannie Farmer Cookbook." Not only did Judith Jones initiate and edit the biography, but she conducted three-quarters of the interviews along with her husband. The book is referred to in knowing circles not as Evan Jones', but as the Joneses'.

"The James Beard Celebration Cookbook" (Morrow, $24.95), an informal collection of reminiscences by chefs and other food professionals, has an "editor pro bono" in Barbara Kafka, a hot food name whose celebrity lies in her microwave expertise and a blockbuster cookbook on that subject. Kafka taught many classes with Beard, and they often traveled together. She was particularly close to him in the last years of his life when it was difficult for him to get around on swollen and bandaged legs.

Kafka compiled the book of 225 recipes and accompanying anecdotes (including one from Judith and Evan Jones) as a fund-raiser for the James Beard Foundation, which is trying to buy Beard's unique Village home with its vast kitchen, but no bedroom. (He slept in the living room.) She herself will earn nothing on the book.

Not that money, or book royalties, is at the heart of this contretemps. This is strictly a clash of emotions and wounded reputations. Kafka finds herself under attack for her culinary authority, her motives in producing her book and her personality. The Joneses hear whispers that they're homophobes, that they are trying to knock off their competition, and that they also have suspect motives in continuing to link Beard's name to theirs.

And in a universe as cramped as the food world, where huge windfalls are restricted to a handful of star chefs and authors (while everyone else splits a modest pie), who-said-what-about-whom is at least as important as who-earned-how-much.

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