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the JAMES BEARD Style : Celebrating the holidays with America's butter boy. : American Holidays

November 25, 1994|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES FOOD MANAGING EDITOR

" For God's sake, how we beat our bodies to give a party, and other people give them a box of potato chips, a can of deviled ham and ten cents worth of sweet pickles. "

--James Beard, in a letter, after Christmas season 1954 *

Forty years after James Beard complained to Los Angeles cookbook writer Helen Evans Brown, most of us would be grateful for those chips and pickles--or their '90s equivalents (focaccia and olives?)--as long as they were presented in friendly company. That's how far the state of entertaining has fallen.

In these lean and mean times, we're so constrained by economical and nutritional concerns that it sometimes seems our entertaining is guided more by the gray and stern ghost of Fannie Farmer than the charmingly ebullient shade of James Beard, who used to laughingly refer to himself as "the butter boy."

One of America's greatest food writers, Beard, author of 22 cookbooks, died at the age of 82 on Jan. 23, 1985--10 years ago this holiday season. (Farmer, by the way, lived only to 43.) Reading through the recently published "Love and Kisses and a Halo of Truffles" (Arcade: 1994, $25.95), his collected letters to Brown, one wonders whether he ever did anything but entertain. And during the holidays, Beard was in especially fine form.

A 1953 letter written the week between Christmas and New Year describes a typical dinner party for 20: "The onions belle aurore were superb, and the finnan haddie made an even greater hit than before. I also did a big bowl of endive, cucumber and celery with ice--in a big new wheat-pattern ironstone I got for Christmas. Then I had the cassoulet made with fine flageolets I found in the market. Saturday night I had cooked a goose and I used that, mutton, pork and garlic sausage. Instead of sprinkling with crumbs, I used sesame seeds. It was really a dandy."

While that menu might exhaust most of us, for Beard it was just the start of a busy week.

"I have three more dinners to give, then finish," the letter continued.

*

From the time of his childhood in Portland, Ore., the Christmas season was a busy one for Beard. His mother ran a boarding house, largely by herself--his father was absent for long periods of time--and the holidays were filled with people and food.

"Few people have loved Christmas as (mother) did," he wrote in his memoir, "Delights and Prejudices." "Her great joy in the holiday season was infectious and for once in the year we were a united family."

The preparations began in early November, with the making of the mincemeat.

"Those days were a fascination to me," he wrote. "First there was the cooking of the meat for the mincemeat, which in our home was always beef and beef tongue. These were boiled, the stock was reserved for sauces and soups and stews, and the meat was finely cut or shredded and chopped by hand, then mixed with several kinds of raisins, currants and candied fruits and quantities of liquor. We never put apples in the mincemeat until we took it out of the crock to use it, because my mother felt it kept better this way.

"I remember that we would save bottles of liqueurs that had been sent to us as gifts but were not to our taste for after-dinner drinking, and they greatly enhanced the mincemeat while being themselves overpowered by the other flavors. My father always lifted the crust of hot mince pie and put a cube of butter and a piece of Roquefort cheese underneath, which I considered a horrendous mixture."

*

It was in post-Depression New York City that Beard--a frustrated actor--came to fame, establishing himself as a caterer and cooking teacher before finally publishing his first recipe collection, "Hors d'Oeuvres and Canapes," in 1940. His love for the holidays never wavered, even as his means of entertaining for them changed drastically.

"We were five for lunch yesterday and we did most of the cooking," he wrote of Thanksgiving 1954, spent at a friend's palazzo in Florence. "We stuffed the turkey with a collection of things. We had fresh truffles, which we slipped under the skin, and made a stuffing with parsley, onion, pureed chestnuts, bread crumbs, some rice pilaff left from the day before, mushroom stems, plenty of truffle slices and a little Madeira.

*

"We started with some beautiful foie gras , then the turkey and pureed potatoes, a salad of endive and beets, the pumpkin pie and cognac and coffee. It was a dreamy day, the sun beat in on us and we were very gay and happy, all five of us."

Christmas day was usually spent with family and a few intimate friends, with a menu centering around a nice thick Porterhouse steak fried in butter. Later, sometimes the main dish changed to a stew of salt cod, a grand poached Italian sausage called a zampone (in a letter, he described one as "looking for all the world like Mae West's thigh and leg"), and maybe a country ham.

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