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Letter From a Friend : Master food writer James Beard, finally revealed : LOVE AND KISSES AND A HALO OF TRUFFLES: Letters to Helen Evans Brown, Edited by John Ferrone (Arcade Publishing: $25.95; 418 pp.)

October 16, 1994|Russ Parsons | Russ Parsons is managing editor of the Los Angeles Times food section and writes the weekly column , In the Kitchen

James Beard--along with Julia Child, his opposite in so many ways--has to be regarded as the most important American cookbook writer of this, or possibly any, century. But while Child is thought of--not without justification--as something of a kitchen saint, Beard's reputation is messier, and in many ways more interesting.

Gossipy, contentious, money-grubbing . . . he seems to have been all of those, as well as a cook of some refinement, a prodigious collector of recipes and--most important--an outspoken champion of American food at a time when that was decidedly counter to the popular flow.

Since his death in January, 1985, Beard has been the subject of two recent biographies, but neither succeeded in solving the contradictions.

Evan Jones, a certified New York food mafia insider (he's married to Alfred A. Knopf's formidable cookbook editor Judith Jones, who has worked with Beard, Child, Marion Cunningham, Marcella Hazan and Dianne Kennedy, among many others) got to the plate first. But his "Epicurean Delight: The Life and Times of James Beard" treats the big man as an icon, spelling out in painstaking, mind-numbing detail what Beard did, who he saw and what he wrote (while remaining remarkably reticent about his personal life). The book has about as much personality as a desk calendar, though it may not be quite as stylishly written.

Then, last year, Robert Clark published "James Beard, A Life," and the reaction has been mixed. Clark, an admirable historian, uses his subject as a prism through which to view the changing world. Agriculture and homosexuality, cooking and commercialism . . . each gets its turn. The history is good, but I find it telling that everyone I know who is mentioned in the book--theoretically, at least, the people who were closest to Beard--hates it. The problem is, again, the missing Beard.

Now, along comes "Love and Kisses and a Halo of Truffles," a collection of letters Beard wrote between May, 1952, and August, 1964, to noted Los Angeles cookbook writer Helen Evans Brown (though somewhat forgotten today, her "West Coast Cookbook" has yet to be equaled as far as defining the particular mix of ingredients, personalities and ethnicities that makes California cooking).

Now, finally, we can begin to understand who James Beard was.

A compulsive gossip whose marathon telephone sessions are legend, Beard's letters to Brown took the place of long-distance telephone calls--not only were they cheaper, but in those good old days of mail service, a letter from New York to Pasadena generally arrived in only one or two days. Thus, the notes have the immediacy of conversation.

In his cookbooks--with the arguable exception of "Delights and Prejudices"--Beard's writing could be pretty stiff. He inhabited each book as if in masquerade, at turns all he-man bravado (one of his first big books was on outdoor cooking, and he wrote a monthly column for the mostly hunting and fishing magazine Argosy) and omniscient pedant.

But as this book shows, in private he was quite a witty writer, capable of conjuring up a place or a person with just a couple of strokes. As befitting a casual (if remarkably frequent) correspondence, the tone is conversational and intimate--from Beard's pen to your ear.

"Last night's party was a whirling success," he wrote in 1954, "except that Barbara A. had had no lunch, drank three double martinis and almost crawled out of the place, leaving her small Dior hat here."

A little later he writes: "Try to get to a television set and see the new program 'Home,' which I heard is pretty awful. Poppy Cannon is the food person, and she did a vichyssoise with frozen mashed potatoes, one leek sauteed in butter and a cream of chicken soup from Campbell's."

Not that he didn't dabble in such commercial shenanigans himself. The product sponsorships mentioned in this book--and, mind you, these are just the ones he writes about--include dried spices, aluminum foil grills, various wines and spirits, even something called "charcoal sauce."

This uneasy alliance between educator and shill is something Robert Clark agonized about in his biography. To what extent does a writer owe it to his public to remain untainted by endorsements of commercial products? It's one of the central questions of Beard's career: If James Beard says you should fry breakfast cereal in Spice Islands dried celery, can you believe anything else he might say?

Beard was constantly concerned about money--what free-lance writer isn't?--and the book is filled with letters spinning ideas for restaurants, cookshops and books that never materialized.

But he did have his standards. In a letter relating the success of a luncheon he put on for O'Quinn's charcoal sauce, he also talks of turning down something called Whirl, apparently a butter substitute: "I cannot see myself selling it. It looks like something for artificial insemination when it comes out of the can, and I am sure it is going to have that effect on most who see it."

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