Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Who's Who in Local Foods

Ever heard of James Beard?  If you live in America and like food, he's a pretty important guy.  James Beard had the very first cooking show ever, before Julia Child.  He was a strong advocate for 'American cuisine', first and foremost working to uncover precisely what such a thing was.  He's credited with being the first to bring French cuisine to America, though ultimately that was more Julia's forte, as James worked toward building an American cuisine and culinary identity.
 He wrote more than twenty cookbooks, and ran a cooking school out of his townhouse in Greenwich Village, between 6th and 7th on 12th street.  I give you the address because shortly after he died at the age of eighty-one, his home was bought, and refurbished by the James Beard Foundation, which advocates for America's culinary heritage, and food-related professions, and provides scholarships to people entering the culinary arts.  Different workshops and other offerings are regularly held there, most notably the Beard Awards, given  on the first weekend in May, roughly coinciding with his birthday, to various representatives of the food industry: cook book authors, wine critics, restaurant designers, etc.  Founded in 1990, the awards are already considered 'the Oscars of food.' 
  I was just there yesterday, attending a workshop on how to break into the food publishing industry, offered in part by Candice Kumai, which is how I came to learn about James Beard, and woe to my previous ignorance!

James Beard was born May 5th, 1903, in Portland Oregon.  He started college at Reed College in Portland, but was expelled in 1922 for homosexual activity, which, seriously??  I can't believe that wasn't mentioned as part of his bio by the gentleman filling me in at the James Beard House!  In a memoir written later in life, James says, "By the time I was seven, I knew I was gay.  I think it's time to talk about that now."  Which tells us James was willing to talk about his sexuality and how it affected his career.  Perhaps ultimately Reed College had little to offer him, but I can only imagine the pain of expulsion based on something so private, and so completely divorced from academic behavior.  Of course, he isn't the only one.  Oscar Wilde worked seven years of hard labor as sentence after being found guilty of homosexuality.  (I know, seriously??)  It's something that happened. Another blight on our past as a species.

 Edit: In 1976, Reed College presented James with an honorary degree, presumably as a late apology.  During his time at Reed, he was elected treasurer of his freshman class, and won a costume party in full drag.  Interestingly enough, James left the  bulk of his estate to Reed college, and set up a scholarship fund there in his name for students who can't afford the tuition.

After his expulsion, James joined a traveling theater troupe.  He moved to France for several years during the 1920s, and came back to settle in NYC in 1927.  He trained as a singer and actor in New York, and continued pursuing that career for some time, until he opened a catering business with his friend, Bill Rhodes, around 1937.  His first cookbook was a compilation of his catering recipes.

Considering his background as a performer, it's not surprising that he went from being at the front of the classroom, to being in front of the cameras, where he did quite well.

What makes me a newly minted James Beard fan-gurl (aside from his overcoming adversity and prejudice, and staying a positive person throughout it) is this quote about James from David Kamp:

"in 1940—he realized that part of his mission [as a food connoisseur] was to defend the pleasure of real cooking and fresh ingredients against the assault of the Jell-O-mold people and the domestic scientists."

Rock on, man!  Way to fight the good fight, a good sixty years before the term 'locavore' was coined!
James Beard was an advocate of eating locally, and of appreciating the regional cuisines around you.  

In spite of his cooking shows, his cooking school, his many cookbooks, at the time of his death in 1985, the closest thing we had to a unified national cuisine (a state of affairs properly lamented by Barbara Kingsolver in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), was fast food restaurants.  Here in 2012, we're making some slow progress.  It's important for us to be mindful of the giants on whose shoulders we stand: each time you step into a Farmer's Market, or savor a delicious meal you made yourself from fresh, local ingredients, think of our patron saint, James Beard.  Why not honor his memory by keeping one finger on the pulse of the James Beard Foundation?

The workshop I attended yesterday was really informative, the James Beard House is beautiful, the food was fantastic (no surprise there; Candice provided it!), and, once I knew who James Beard was, I was proud to participate in his legacy.

Incidentally, you can follow the James Beard Foundation, and Candice Kumai, (and me of course!) on twitter!

I got my information on James Beard mostly from the wikipedia page, but the James Beard Foundation website is the best source of info about that organization (of course).  Check it out!

Live Omily,
~em

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