Photo of James Beard
Photo by Dan Wynn © Rita Wynn, courtesy of the James Beard Foundation

James Beard

James 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, fishing, gathering shellfish and wild berries, and cooking 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 his non-lucrative career and began a catering business. He revolutionized what then passed for cocktail food by offering more substantive fare. 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.

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 published Fowl and Game Cookery, The Fireside Cookbook, Paris Cuisine, James Beard's Fish Cookery, How to Eat Better for Less Money (with Sam Aaron of the Sherry-Lehmann wine store), The Complete Book of Outdoor Cookery (with Helen Evans Brown), and The Casserole Cookbook. He appeared in his own segment on television's first cooking show on NBC in 1946, and then on many other spots on television and radio. He contributed articles and columns to Woman's Day, Gourmet, and House & Garden, served as a consultant to many restaurateurs and food producers, and ran his own restaurant on Nantucket. He became the focal point of the entire American food world.

In 1955, he 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. He 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.

Beard also continued to write cookbooks, most of which became classics and many of which are still in print: The James Beard Cookbook (1959), James Beard's Treasury of Outdoor Cooking (1960), Delights and Prejudices (1964), James Beard's Menus for Entertaining (1965), James Beard's American Cookery (1972), Beard on Bread (1973), Beard on Food (1974), James Beard's Theory and Practice of Good Cooking (1977), The New James Beard (1981), and Beard on Pasta (1983).

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. He was hailed as the "dean of American cookery" and his name remains synonymous with American food.