Two New Beard Biographies Ignite Bonfire of the Foodies : Books: The chef who once called himself ‘a butter boy’ is the topic of tasteless bickering whipped up by followers who wish to inherit his richly caloric mantle.
A biography, with recipes. A collection of reminiscences, also with recipes. How incendiary can two books be, when half their contents are devoted to measurements of candied ginger and beef shins?
Yet gossip is flaring like nasty little grease fires from every professional range in New York. The appearance of two new books on the life of James Beard has ignited nothing less than a “bonfire of the foodies.”
The principals in this food-family quarrel include publishing’s most respected editor of cookbooks, a woman spoken of by chefs and writers with awe and fear; a brilliant and acerbic best-selling cookbook author who compiled a book of reminiscences to exorcise Beard’s ghost, but finds herself more enmeshed than ever in his Byzantine court intrigues, and--hovering over the proceedings--the mischievous spirit of the “great one” himself.
James Beard was the outsized, exuberant culinary pioneer who virtually invented the role of foodie in 45 years of preaching what he extravagantly ate (“I’m a butter boy,” he liked to brag). Once a monument in life, he has been elevated since his death five years ago at 82 to the status of icon, partly through the foundation that bears his name.
Without family but with a talent for inspiring passionate attachments, he assembled in his lifetime a constantly shifting field of acolytes and assistants, proteges and protective friends, many of whom live on to furiously debate the image of Beard emerging from the books. But that’s not all they’re debating. At issue, for some, is whether they themselves were properly characterized for their closeness and importance to the master.
“There is this atmosphere of people fighting over the remains--'I’m the one who really understood him,’ and ‘I’m the person who should inherit the mantle, or the whisk, or whatever,’ ” says Robert Clark, editor of the “Journal of Gastronomy” and the author of yet a third upcoming Beard book. “It’s a whole sort of Beardian saga in itself, everybody fighting over the relics.”
“I feel that this particular going-on is petty and trivial,” says Nach Waxman, owner of the bookstore Kitchen Arts and Letters, gossip central to the New York food world. For all that people claim to be doing as their utmost to honor Beard, Waxman says, “All the conversation and sniping--it’s dishonoring Beard’s memory.”
“Not at all,” says Peter Kump, a cooking teacher and president of the James Beard Foundation. “Jim loved gossip. Jim would really be delighted, because the lines are burning up with people comparing the books, and what they think is right about them and what they think is wrong with them. It’s all very Beardian.” This was a man, after all, who started each day in his West 12th Street townhouse with two dawn hours of phone gossip.
The book attracting most of the whispered criticism, “Epicurean Delight: The Life and Times of James Beard” (Knopf, $24.95), is a biography by food writer Evan Jones. He is married to Beard’s venerable book editor, Judith Jones, whose stable of luminaries includes Julia Child, M.F.K. Fisher and Marion Cunningham, author of the recent editions of the “Fannie Farmer Cookbook.” Not only did Judith Jones initiate and edit the biography, but she conducted three-quarters of the interviews along with her husband. The book is referred to in knowing circles not as Evan Jones’, but as the Joneses’.
“The James Beard Celebration Cookbook” (Morrow, $24.95), an informal collection of reminiscences by chefs and other food professionals, has an “editor pro bono” in Barbara Kafka, a hot food name whose celebrity lies in her microwave expertise and a blockbuster cookbook on that subject. Kafka taught many classes with Beard, and they often traveled together. She was particularly close to him in the last years of his life when it was difficult for him to get around on swollen and bandaged legs.
Kafka compiled the book of 225 recipes and accompanying anecdotes (including one from Judith and Evan Jones) as a fund-raiser for the James Beard Foundation, which is trying to buy Beard’s unique Village home with its vast kitchen, but no bedroom. (He slept in the living room.) She herself will earn nothing on the book.
Not that money, or book royalties, is at the heart of this contretemps. This is strictly a clash of emotions and wounded reputations. Kafka finds herself under attack for her culinary authority, her motives in producing her book and her personality. The Joneses hear whispers that they’re homophobes, that they are trying to knock off their competition, and that they also have suspect motives in continuing to link Beard’s name to theirs.
And in a universe as cramped as the food world, where huge windfalls are restricted to a handful of star chefs and authors (while everyone else splits a modest pie), who-said-what-about-whom is at least as important as who-earned-how-much.
“People feel passionately about food,” observes Clark, from his perch just barely inside the fray, “and in a field where you don’t get much respect, people feel passionately about their reputations.”
The roots of this quarrel lie in the competitive universe Beard kept spinning around himself. Beard was an industry in one 6-foot-4-inch, 300-pound frame. Publishing a cookbook every two years, a weekly syndicated newspaper column, advising dozens of restaurants on menus, promoting products from Green Giant frozen vegetables to Omaha steaks, traveling constantly on the teaching-and-lecture circuit and running a cooking school with a student waiting list years long, Beard was a phenomenon who required an extensive support system.
His attraction was that he was ebullient and great theater, at one time an aspiring actor-singer. He believed food should be fun, abundant, proudly American and whenever possible, a spectacle (along with himself). It was typical that he once flamed a 6-foot-wide crepe suzette on a TV talk show.
With all the greats of the food world constantly flowing through his house, he was a magnet for young food professionals, many of whom helped him write or assisted in classes. Like many extraordinarily gifted people, he could get away with a complicated--and not always generous--attitude toward those around him. People who knew him best describe him as a food encyclopedia for friends, and charmingly helpful in sharing his contacts with beginners, but strictly at his whim. He also enjoyed playing off the members of his coterie against one another.
One of the more talked-about rivalries, if unintended on the part of the rivals, was that between Kafka and Marion Cunningham (a close friend of the Joneses). Beard would schedule a cooking demonstration, for example, and invite both to participate without telling them. “Like many people he loved to see the wheels go ‘round, and there was always much electricity in the air when those two were together,” says Evan Jones. “Jim loved that.”
In writing the biography, the Joneses, for the most part, took a nonjudgmental view of the figures in Beard’s life. Among the only three individuals who were harshly characterized were Beard’s lifetime companion, the late Gino Cofacci, and a one-time cooking school assistant, Carl Jerome, who were Beard’s two most significant romantic attachments. The portrayals of those relationships--and that Beard’s homosexuality is introduced into the book in a footnote--has given rise to talk that the book is homophobic, Evan Jones acknowledges.
He responds that he was not trying to write a psycho-biography, and tried to handle those subjects in a matter-of-fact way. “This is not a Freudian book,” he says. For those looking for one, he adds, “I trust that they’ll find Bob Clark.”
The other individual disparaged is Kafka. She is described by the Joneses as a “sharp-tongued” food writer who elbowed her way into Beard’s life knowing “more at the time about courts of intrigue than she did about the world of food.” While that may sound mild to civilians, one sure knock against a food writer is to say she knows nothing about food.
So here is the timing: Two Beard books appeared simultaneously in October. One book takes a swipe at the author of the competing book. Yet that alone would not be enough to set off this round of gossip, since Kafka is anything but a frail personality who inspires “foodies” to feel they must defend her. What’s happening is that the small insults are feeding on themselves as gossip spreads, and people are carrying comments back and forth between all the various parties, “whispering at the Four Seasons,” as Judith Jones puts it.
Not that the whispers are so sotto voce that she can’t hear them, which is remarkable considering her clout in cookbook publishing, one of the few foodie avenues to riches. She says, “I think (the book’s critics) go to the index first, and if they don’t see their names or if they aren’t center stage, they shoot the book down.” Jones believes the dispute “is being fanned,” although when asked by whom, she answers, “There are so many people I can’t list them all. They’re coming out of the woodwork.”
The Joneses suffer further from the widespread belief that they tried to quash Clark’s book by warning Beard’s friends off talking to him. “What got back to me,” Clark says, “is that they told people I was going to write a ‘pathography’ and that I would place a lot of emphasis on his homosexuality.” Clark says he is writing about Beard’s place in the context of the development of America’s food culture.
“Absolutely not,” says Judith Jones. “We have never steered people away . . . People have talked to you for two hours and then they get called up the next week by someone else and they just don’t have the time.”
When Evan Jones was interviewed for this story prior to his wife’s comments, he was aware of all the rumors and of Kafka’s hurt feelings. His response was that Kafka was possessive of the Beard legend and would have a hard time accepting another author’s view. “Barbara thinks that Jim is her Jim,” he says.
This is a variation on a common interpretation of what’s happening in the larger Beard circle: So many people feel so protective of the Jim they knew--and he was a man who showed different faces to different people--that they feel any picture that varies from theirs is wrong.
But there’s more to Evan Jones’ criticism of Kafka than just that. Referring to the fact that he and his wife gave a recipe to her foundation cookbook, he adds, “She’s the kind that never says ‘Thanks,’ never says, ‘I got it,’ ” after the recipe was submitted.
Kafka says she wants to stay out of this fight, adding that she did not write a biography herself just to avoid such a dust-up. “I did this book to get quits of Jim,” she says. “I’m not sure it’s time for a biography because people are still fighting the old wars. In my book there are no old wars. All the people in it were important to Jim in some way. It’s very hard to know the truth of who meant what to him.” As for the Joneses, Kafka says, “I’m sorry they feel that way about me.”
Complicating this situation is that toward the end of his life, Beard was under contract to Knopf, through Judith Jones, to write a second volume of his memoirs. (His first, “Delights and Prejudices,” was just re-issued in paperback with an introduction by Kafka, “and a lot of people weren’t happy about that because they thought they should have written it,” says Clark.)
Beard’s writing habits often called for him to dictate to an interviewer or editor remarks that would later be shaped into a text. Finding it difficult to get going on his second memoirs, he apparently tried the dictation method with numerous people, among them Kafka and, at Judith Jones’ suggestion, Evan Jones. Because Evan Jones had “good material” after Beard’s death, and also because of his knowledge of food, “he was the perfect person to write the book,” Judith Jones says.
Kafka won’t comment, other than to say that when Beard discussed writing the book with her he did not mention that it was under contract to Knopf, if indeed it was at the time. “I bowed out. I did not choose to be in the middle of that fight then, and I do not choose to be now . . . He was working on his memoirs and he was old and tired and he was trying many ways to get to the end.”
The transcript of her conversations with Beard ended up in her book for the Beard Foundation in the form of a long and very moving first-person account by Beard of his early life in Oregon. It includes precise details on some issues, including his unhappy relationship with his mother and his expulsion from Reed College over a homosexual incident, that Evan Jones had to fudge in his book, because, he says, he didn’t have the information.
“It was a surprise to me that Barbara Kafka’s book also had some tapes,” Judith Jones says. “And not only does it surprise me but I don’t understand how she feels she has the rights to those tapes.” Jones claims they should have gone to the estate. There they would have been available to all Beard researchers.
Kafka says, “Mr. Beard himself sent me the transcript of the material and clearly intended me to have it. I used it in all good faith, and certainly not for my own profit.” In addition, she says, a foundation lawyer told her the foundation had the right to use the taped material for the book. Judith Jones knew the foundation book was in the works, Kafka says, “and she could have written me, she could have taken some action about it, but she didn’t.”
While his friends all agree that Beard would be enjoying this, it’s hard to imagine what he would have thought had he known that much of it would be going on under his own roof.
Beard’s will called for his house (with a lifetime lease of an apartment for Cofacci) to be sold. All its contents were to be dispersed as well--his dozens of copper pots, vintage restaurant menus, hundreds of cookbooks, and the famous bed in the living room. The money was to go to Reed College, which although it expelled him, eventually gave him an honorary degree.
Yet many of his friends claimed that his true desire was for his fame to live on, his collections preserved. One of the few food world figures who could never be suspected of trying to grab a little glitter from an association with Beard--Julia Child--proposed that the house be saved as a New York meeting place for food professionals, and that a Beard foundation be established to enhance the profession’s status. The deed was done.
Now, even those like the Joneses, who felt Beard would not have wanted the foundation established, are on board as supporters. And Child’s vision has been amazingly realized. The house is constantly buzzing with tastings, book signings, elaborate meals cooked for members by out-of-town chefs and cooking classes.
In name, Beard continues to dominate this manic New York food world, and so what is said about him, and in his name, continues to be of moment.
“People want to be part of something,” says Nach Waxman. “You’re not in it if you’re not part of this fray.”
As for what Beard would have wanted under his roof, “I don’t think it matters because he told so many people so many different things,” said Kafka. “There’s nothing wrong (with the foundation), and it does no evil. Would the money be better off feeding poor children? Yes, probably. But the money would not have gone there.
“People have to have things they care about and he had a vast following all over this city who adored him. They waited for years to take a class. People all over this country cared very much about Jim, not because they knew him but because they felt they knew him through his books. And that’s what we should be celebrating.”
A recent event at the Beard house celebrated the Kafka book for the foundation, with some of the New York chefs cooking the recipes they contributed. The guest list included the contributors of the Brazilian feijoada recipe, Judith and Evan Jones.
Clark says, “I think I’m going to be happy to have a couple of years go by before my book is published.”