Clip | James Beard: America's First Foodie - See early Portland and learn about James Beard’s influential mother

At the turn of the century, Portland had a bustling market culture, and James Beard’s mother was right at the center of it all. Running a boarding house, Beard’s mother brought the very best cooking to her guests and in the process taught her son an appreciation for great food at a young age.


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.

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Portland in those years was larger than Seattle, aspired to be the San Francisco of the Pacific Northwest, and so took its food and other parts of its culture very seriously. The market culture really had a central role in Portland's culinary development. So if you can envision hundreds of vendors on a daily basis just clogging the sidewalk and the street corners selling everything edible as well as dry goods and things that everyday shoppers would need. Jim loved markets. They had healthy, good food. And things were not changed by science, and he and his brother would go down and they would shop, and they knew all of the purveyors by name. I can just imagine those vendors competing to make sure they were the ones who gave this pudgy little foodie kid of the day whose mother is the most influential food person in the city the most delicious morsel to wander through the market. James Beard's nursemaid had taken him to the doctor and stopped at the market to pick up some goods for Mrs. Beard, and after the vendor at the market packed it up and hand her to the bag, the nursemaid said, 'Oh, can you please put that on Mrs. Beard's account?' The vendor grabbed it back and said, 'Oh it's for her? She'd kill me if I sold her that.' Mrs. Beard had an amazing palate. She was extremely discriminating, and she herself was a gourmand. In fact, I hate to say it, but I think she was really America's first foodie. She's the one that made James Beard who he was. She gave him the appreciation of all this delicious food.

I've always felt like a strong kind of kindred thing with James Beard - maybe because I was a hungry kid, too. I grew up in a big family - single mother - we gardened. We raised a lot of our own food. So from an early age I had my own curiosity and a mother who was a good cook.

Beard's mom had a lot of interesting approaches to food. What we would consider to be just classic countrycooking was taking place in her kitchen. and out of her vegetable beds and fruit trees. And so you've got a pretty adventuresome woman who's willing to talk to the farmer coming to the back door, or buying vegetables from the Italian guy off the back of his truck.

They would bring their vegetables and maybe some other little special things out of California - things that were very exotic to the common cook of that era. And if she didn't know how to cook it she would develop relationships with Mr. Delfinio or Mr. Antozi, and they would talk about how their grandmother cooked that and introduced new ideas, new sort of regional cuisine into Beard's mother's cooking.