James Beard: America’s First Foodie

Biography of James Beard

Early Life


James Beard PortraitJames Andrew Beard was born on May 5, 1903 in Portland, Oregon, to Elizabeth and John Beard. His mother, an independent English woman passionate about food, ran a boarding house. His father worked at Portland’s Customs House. The family spent summers at the beach at Gearhart, Oregon. There, they fished, gathered shellfish and wild berries, and cooked meals with whatever was caught.

After a brief stint at Reed College in Portland, in 1923 Beard went on the road with a theatrical troupe. He lived abroad for several years studying voice and theater, but returned to the United States for good in 1927. Although he kept trying to break into the theater and movies, by 1935 he needed to supplement what was a very non-lucrative career and began a catering business. With the opening of a small food shop called Hors d’Oeuvre, Inc., in 1937, Beard finally realized that his future lay in the world of food and cooking.

 

First Cookbook


In 1940, Beard penned what was then the first major cookbook devoted exclusively to cocktail food, Hors d’Oeuvre & Canapés. In 1942 he followed it up with Cook It Outdoors, the first serious work on outdoor cooking. Beard spent the war years with a brief stint in cryptography, but he primarily served with the United Seamen’s Service, setting up sailors’ canteens in Puerto Rico, Rio de Janeiro, Marseilles, and Panama.

When he returned to New York in 1945, Beard became totally immersed in the culinary community. Between 1945 and 1955 he wrote several seminal cookbooks. He appeared in his own segment on television’s first cooking show, “I Love to Eat” on NBC in 1946, and then on many other spots on television and radio. Beard contributed articles and columns to Woman’s Day, Gourmet, and House & Garden and served as a consultant to many restaurateurs and food producers. He also ran his own restaurant on Nantucket, becoming the focal point of the entire American food world.

 

Beard Cooking School


In 1955, Beard established the James Beard Cooking School. He continued to teach cooking to men and women for the next 30 years, both at his own schools (in New York City and Seaside, Oregon), and around the country at women’s clubs, other cooking schools, and civic groups. Beard was a tireless traveler, bringing his message of good food, honestly prepared with fresh, wholesome, American ingredients, to a country just becoming aware of its own culinary heritage. He also continued to write cookbooks, most of which became classics and many of which are still in print.

When James Beard died at 81 on January 21, 1985, he left a legacy of culinary excellence and integrity to generations of home cooks and professional chefs. His name remains synonymous with American food.


Major funding for James Beard: America’s First Foodie is provided by Feast it Forward. Additional funding provided by the National Endowment for the Arts and Art Works.

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Major support for American Masters is provided by AARP. Additional funding is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Rosalind P. Walter, The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, Judith and Burton Resnick, Ellen and James S. Marcus, Vital Projects Fund, Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, The Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation, Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, The André and Elizabeth Kertész Foundation, Michael & Helen Schaffer Foundation and public television viewers.