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Beard Had the Recipe for Fame

November 01, 1996|GERALDINE BAUM

The late James Beard is best known as the champion of American cuisine who promoted the idea--at the same time as he relentlessly promoted himself--that Americans were just as good as Europeans in the kitchen.

Raised in Portland, Ore., by his British mother, who ran a hotel, he grew up on her home cooking and a little more exotic fare from the family's Chinese cook. He picked up his dramatic skills acting in amateur groups in Portland and later in Britain, where he studied opera. Once in New York, he became involved with food, collaborating on his first book about hors d'oeuvres. But friends remember him for his warmth, extraordinary intelligence and a curiosity that led him to be interested in all aspects of food.

He also became prominent at a time when food was neither chic nor a large field, so he was a big male fish in a small sea of mostly women.

Mark Peel of Los Angeles' Campanile, who is an enthusiastic supporter of the James Beard Foundation, says the legacy of Beard and his peers should not be limited to their most famous recipes--not even for Beard's chicken with 40 cloves of garlic--but rather in the way they described food and where it came from.

"You read a James Beard recipe for hashed brown potatoes and it may not be something special," Peel said. "But then he writes about the cook on the Oregon railroad who made them and describes the scent of potatoes and that's what excites you. It was the way he created the image in your mind. And an institution can't do that."

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