There were no ghostly votive candles, no eerie organ music, no shards of light piercing through dusty velvet curtains. Still, the place had a definite shrine-like quality: a feeling that excellence and expertise had lovingly coexisted here in James Beard’s cluttered Greenwich Village kitchen. One sensed that in this well-used Cuisinart, with this proudly battered KitchenAid mixer, whimsy and creativity had been raised to the level of a serious, incontrovertible form of art.
After all, said Beard disciple and fellow New York cooking school proprietor Peter Kump, “In a way, he was sort of the George Washington of our little movement.”
James Beard, said Kump in tones suited well to a viewing of the Shroud of Turin, “was the first person who said American food is important.”
“He gave pride to American cooking,” said Alice Waters, founding chef of the legendary restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., “and also to struggling little restaurants.”
Declared Julia Child, reached at her summer home near Grasse, in the South of France, “He was the champion of good cooking, period. I’m tired of all this talk about American cooking.”
Child’s famous voice was marked by a note of impatience, or maybe it was simply out-and-out frustration. Like so many in the Beard coterie, Child despaired of word of the Oct. 3 auction of Beard’s house and worldly/culinary possessions, and the mere mention of auction tags on his whisks and molds, or of his cookbook collection bundled into neat, green-ribboned batches of seven and 10 volumes was enough to send her into a transatlantic tizzy.
“We were hoping something could be done so there could be a James Beard house, something to make it sort of the James Beard Memorial Gastronomic Center,” Child said. Something, Child suggested, that might turn the Maison Beard into “a kind of living memorial that everyone could use, a place for all the people in the world of food and wine.”
Plan Was Concocted Jointly
The plan was concocted jointly by Kump, Child and American Institute of Wine and Food president George Trescher in hopes, as Trescher explained it, that the Beard property would become a kind of central operating station for “various organizations” in the gastronomic world, and would provide a single central location for “classes, book parties, celebrity appearances, things like that.” Selling off the house and splitting up Beard’s multitudinous possessions was “very sad,” said Trescher, “because this is the way of the world these days.” But more than that, he said, it seemed a shame not to preserve the house where the six-foot-three-inch, 275-pound Beard, ensconced in his trademark raised director’s chair, had presided as thousands of people had studied his culinary secrets.
Said Trescher, his voice sounding heavy as he admitted that prospects for preserving the house remained uncertain, “It’s too bad, because you do have such a strong presence of Jim in that house.”
But such a culinary goal clearly was not in Beard’s mind when he authored a will providing for the lifetime care and comfort of longtime companion Gino Cofacci, and naming alma mater Reed College the primary beneficiary. Attorney Morris J. Galen, executor of the Beard estate, has stated that his main responsibility is to obtain the highest price possible from the sale of Beard’s possessions. Hence, the auction. And hence, too, among Beard’s legion of friends and followers, a feeling of heavy-hearted nostalgia.
“There was a whole dinner set shaped like peaches, and he just loved it,” said Caroline Stuart, for five years a colleague of Beard in his world-renowned cooking school. “They have to split it up to sell it, and it just breaks my heart.”
Hailed by none other than Craig Claiborne as “the American apostle of cooking as high art” when he died at 81 last January, Beard had lived and worked in the four-story Greenwich Village townhouse for 15 years, long enough to fill it with enough art and equipment to satisfy most major museums. Indeed, the floors of the light-bathed greenhouse-dining room fairly groan from the weight of the two huge statuary Fates that Beard liked to decorate with garlands at Christmastime.
Outside, a playful bust of Beard himself, sculpted by the father of Andre Surmain, founder of the New York restaurant Lutece, sits by a tiny pool fed by a bronze pig who spouts water through his snout. The Beard head is smiling, and little wonder, since ham was among his favorite foods. On the other hand, Beard had no abundance of kind words for the American ham industry, nor, for that matter, for most of this country’s meat industry as a whole.
America, Beard once said, “produces the finest beef and the worst hams, veal and lamb.”
“Opinionated?” Dressed, as is his habit, in one of Beard’s by-necessity oversized shirts, Clay Triplette threw back his head in mock understatement. For 30 years Beard’s daily associate and right-hand-person, Triplette conceded that yes, his employer had certain decidedly strong opinions.
“Oh yeah,” agreed Caroline Stuart. “He was real outspoken. He certainly said what he thought. He sure didn’t beat around the bush.”
For example, Stuart said, “he hated mesquite. He thought it took over the flavor of the food. He especially hated fish cooked on mesquite.”
And then, the same James Beard who once said he thought he could probably make it as a cannibal, “provided there was enough tarragon,” also detested oregano.
Some Berries Were Adored
“He didn’t care for blueberries,” said Stuart. “He thought they were tasteless.” On the other hand, “he adored raspberries and huckleberries.”
To placate chocolate-loving peasants, said Stuart, Beard included “the token” chocolate dessert recipe in his 27 (or more, depending on who’s tabulating, and how) cookbooks. But truthfully, “he didn’t care for chocolate.”
Bread was another Beard fondness, especially, said Stuart, “that real heavy poly-grain bread, the kind you do so well in California.” He disdained bread baskets, however, preferring to serve bread directly on a board, so guests could take as much as they liked.
Beard loved seafood, said Stuart, particularly the lush Olympia oysters of his native Northwest. In fact, Beard was such a hard-core oyster snob that he would not deign to eat such East Coast interlopers as the patently arriviste bluepoint from Long Island. He had a passion for shrimp and lobster, but his special weakness was for the fat, tender Dungeness crabs of the Pacific Northwest.
Lunchtime was always an adventure, said Triplette, the official mid-day chef in the Beard household. Fancy recipes notwithstanding, Beard loved the simple joys of frankfurters, knockwurst or thick, country-style bacon. “But also,” said Triplette, “I used to make him homemade tomato soup, then crack an egg into it so that it poached and rose to the top.”
One more bas-cuisine Beard indulgence: “McDonald’s French fries,” Triplette said. “He loved ‘em.”
On the other hand, as Triplette was quick to point out, no one ever accused James Beard of strictly hoity-toity preferences. “Mr. Beard,” Triplette said with mock haughtiness, “detested the word gourmet .”
Perhaps in the tradition of his ferociously independent, British-born mother, Elizabeth Jones Brennan Beard, Beard drank only tea, never coffee. Health considerations in later years had forced him to eliminate alcohol, but still, confided Triplette, “he just loved Glen Livet scotch. He couldn’t drink, but every once in a while he would sneak a little here and there. I can still here him say, ‘Clay, get me a little bit of that scotch, would you?’ ”
Beard’s future as one of the world’s leading experts on food and cooking was part destiny, part decision. Born May 5, 1903, in Portland, Ore., to a 43-year-old former hotel-keeper and restaurateur mother, Beard was a portly, precocious child whose earliest gastronomic discovery was when he crawled into the vegetable bin in his mother’s kitchen and devoured an entire onion, skin and all. After studying at Reed College, Beard set out for London, intent on becoming an opera singer. Unfortunately, he discovered he was seriously wanting in the way of a voice. Undaunted, Beard returned to the West to work as an actor for nearly 14 years.
TV’s First Practicing Chef
By 1937, Beard was packing off for New York, intent on conquering the gastronomic world. With William Rhode, the future editor of Gourmet magazine, Beard declared war on what he called “doots”: boring little cracker snacks served up at cocktail parties. Soon Beard and Rhode were catering elegant cocktail and dinner parties around New York.
After World War II the partnership broke up, and Beard became network television’s first practicing chef on a show called “Elsie Presents.” Lecturing, consulting for the food and wine industry, writing book after book and teaching his fabled classes, Beard and his distinctive personality became America’s main impetus for culinary consciousness-raising.
“One thing about Jim,” Julia Child remembered. “He was absolutely encyclopedic in his knowledge. And he was so very generous with that knowledge.”
Child remembered meeting Beard in 1961, soon after the publication of her own first cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I.” They became terrific friends, the kind of friends who frequently traded lore and learning.
“I mean, if you were working with something like bulghur wheat, and you wanted to know something about it, you just called Jim and he would tell you. He was amazing that way.” Child paused. “You miss him so.”
Working on the evening’s menu at her restaurant in Berkeley, Alice Waters fell momentarily silent when told that the hand-painted menu she made for Beard when he dined at Chez Panisse May 26, 1983, was among the 638 items the William Doyle Galleries has listed in its auction catalogue for the Beard estate. Titled “An Alliaceous Dinner for James,” the framed menu has been projected to bring $75-$100, one of the lower-end items of an auction Doyle Galleries hopes will fetch in the neighborhood of $240,000 for everything from whisks and spoons to the Cuisinart and copper molds to Beard’s bulging collection of majolica and faience. The house, Beard’s executors estimate, should bring a none-too-startling New York price of somewhere between $1 million and $1.5 million.
Generous with his knowledge, Beard also was known for his impulsive and sometimes extravagant gift-giving. Many of the items up for auction, Caroline Stuart said, were actually purchased by Beard as gifts for upcoming holidays or for the birthdays of special friends.
Took Painting Off the Wall
As Waters, for one, remembered, the last time she saw Beard in New York, “he gave me something wonderful. It’s an oil painting of a brioche in a very ornate frame.” Waters admired it, and the next thing she knew, “he just took it off the wall and gave it to me.”
Still, some Beard acquaintances have grumbled that he promised this to them or that to them. They are miffed, they say, that they may have to buy the objects they contend Beard intended for them to have.
Triplette, loyal to the last, denies his employer would ever have made such promises. Still prone to slipping in to the present tense when he discusses his boss of 30 years, as if he expected Beard to descend at any moment from his second floor sleeping nook or vast marble bath, Triplette narrowed his eyes when the subject of possible promised objects was raised.
“I figured it this way,” Triplette said. “He definitely promised nothing to nobody. Never.”
“Usually,” said Stuart, “the things he gave to people, he gave to them then and there.”
Just days before today’s preview party for the Beard estate auction, Triplette and Stuart confessed they were still unsure just which of Beard’s favorite recipes they would serve to the food and wine moguls expected to descend on the residence. But one thing they knew they would dish up was Beard’s famed brioche en surprise , better known as the trademark Beard onion sandwich.
Any form of bread would do, Beard used to say in preparing this savory delicacy. The secret formula: cool, sweet butter slathered onto a couple of slices of ultra-fresh bread with a thick sweet onion slice nestled in between.
Pronounced Beard: “A most elegantly satisfying sandwich.”