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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

In fact, one of the effects of reading this book is a lingering awe at the amount of work Beard was able to do. Between sponsorships, radio shows, television, books, magazine articles, the social whirl and travel, it seems he rarely stopped moving.

"This is the last gasp," he writes. "I am pooped, bitched, bushed . . . and completely at sea. But off we go. I have to take six people to luncheon today at the new Chinese place I found, then back to work for another hour or two, and off to Paul Bernard, who is having a party for me, the nice guy. Then a week of hell to face, including a dinner I am doing, which I trust ends the entertaining season. It's going to be simple--asparagus with grated cheese as a hot hors d'oeuvre, jambon a la creme, polenta with spinach and a Turinois--one hour's work."

Wherever Beard went, whatever he did, it seems his mind was aswirl with food (though he weighed more than 300 pounds for most of his adult life, he lived past 80). No mere glutton, everything he cooked was carefully considered. "Friday night we did mutton steaks--real Canadian mutton, which was absolute heaven," he writes. "They were about 1 1/2 inches thick. Ron Callvert likes his well done, and I did that one for 30 minutes. Isabel and I like ours rare, and they were on for 20 minutes, browned to a turn, lusciously pink and juicy inside."

When Brown writes asking for background on American bean dishes, Beard at first demurs ("This is not something on which I have the great store of knowledge that you have") and then proceeds to detail more than a dozen American bean dishes, ranging from his mother's baked beans ("with the same loathing for molasses for (sweetness) that I have") to the bollas from "The Key West Cook Book" ("little balls of fire made with black-eyed beans").

Even in the depths of one of his sporadic diets, he never lost his enthusiasm for eating: "For lunch yesterday I had a little filet. I ate it slowly and realized that here in America we have the finest beef in the world. It was well aged and had flavor and texture. Never have I eaten such a piece of beef anywhere in Europe. And with it, were broiled mushrooms, tasting of the earth, and a little asparagus. . . . It can be a glorious, fresh, tasting experience, this dieting."

There are problems with the book. While John Ferrone has done an admirable job of collecting the letters, his editing is basically limited to thumbnail descriptions of people. The index could be improved and his chapter introductions are essentially pointless, since they merely tell you what you're going to read in the letters. What the book really cries out for is context.

But that's a problem easily solved by reading Clark's biography at the same time. The Clark book will tell you what Beard meant. The letters, who he was.

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