James and the Giant Niche

Beard on Food
By James Beard
Bloomsbury USA, 2007; $26.50

James Beard is credited as the first television chef, having demonstrated cooking techniques on the NBC show Elsie Presents in 1946. He was a profoundly influential instructor and columnist, though his reputation has not gone unscathed: Since his passing in 1985, there has been much talk (not least in a 1993 biography by Robert Clark) about some of the complexities and compromises of life as the first culinary celebrity. There was his endorsement of industrial food products from companies including Pillsbury, Omaha Steaks, Green Giant, and Planters Peanuts; the frustration of his closeted, seemingly lovelorn homosexuality; and his general discomfort in his own girthy body—at 6 foot 2 and 300 or so pounds, he was not, perhaps, as jolly a giant as people once thought. Craig Claiborne, in his posthumous tribute to Beard, said Beard’s discomfort in tatami rooms led to a general dismissal of Japanese cuisine: “when it came to the ups and downs of sitting on a straw mat, Jim was as aggravated as he was frustrated. To the end, I believe, he never accorded the Japanese kitchen anything other than routine marks.” Even the foundation created in Beard’s name after his death has been tarnished by financial scandal—nothing to do with him, of course, but it doesn’t help his name.

Given the decades since his death and the slight patina on his reputation, it is, perhaps, the right time to have another look at his writing, the very thing that made him the face of American cuisine, and Beard on Food, a compendium of his newspaper columns that was first published in 1974, has been rereleased this fall to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the James Beard Foundation.

Beard writes with a sunny disposition, always charming and always charmed by his subject. His description of a proper flank-steak sandwich reads like a motto: “The bread must be crisp, the meat rare, the seasonings zippy.” Indeed—and to think that he was singing the praises of flank steak before a whole cadre of chefs celebrated the virtue of nonloin steaks like flank, hanger, and skirt. He is more food-focused in his writing than, say, M. F. K. Fisher, who wrote as much about psychology as food. In that light, he’s also, in the end, probably more helpful in the kitchen—both as a muse reminding you of good dishes you’ve been meaning to make, and as a teacher, easing the pressure you might feel when taking on a fruit tart or a hollandaise sauce.

The Freewheeling Cook

In his introduction to the reissue, Mark Bittman points out the crucial difference between Beard and Julia Child: Her recipes are so precise that you feel like a single deviation will screw things up; Beard on the other hand is suggestive rather than commanding. He might give a recipe for deviled beef bones, then tell you offhandedly that you could just as easily use its tarragon-butter-breadcrumb mixture to devil chickens or honeycomb tripe.

It is a little bit shocking to see how much Beard predicted about American cuisine today. No longer do ingredients like roasted red peppers or booze-soaked prunes seem novel, but once upon a time they needed a champion. (Onion sandwiches made with raw onion probably continue to need, and deserve, a backer on the order of Beard.) But Beard still seems part of the zeitgeist. Take his advocacy of farmers’ and international markets: “It is my dream to see the continent spanned, from coast to coast, with markets like this.” His prescience is evident also in his romance with American regional ingredients like country hams, Maryland blue crab, and pinto beans; his pleasure in offbeat cuts of meat (braised oxtail, tongue); and, of course, his curiosity about other cuisines—French and Italian, yes, but also Mexican, Norwegian, Middle Eastern, Scottish even. Beard wasn’t afraid of technology either: He was an early adopter of and evangelist for the food processor, with which he made kibbe naye, a Middle Eastern dish of raw ground lamb and bulgur. (These days, he’d be more specific about precisely which region in the Middle East his recipe came from, but give a guy a break.)

Although I am not one to worry much about salt or fat in my cooking, there are several instances in which Beard’s recipes (at least until he started watching his own diet later in life) are skewed toward an earlier taste: This is a man, after all, who liked to add heavy cream to his hamburger. There is a creamy chicken and mustard dish that I cooked up (see below), and I liked almost everything about it, but still, you gotta admit that 4 tablespoons of butter plus 2 tablespoons of oil is a lot of grease with which to start a fricassee. With a little less grease, the sauce would have been prettier and less oil-slicked. And in his otherwise lovely recipe for Irish soda bread, there’s a tablespoon of salt—I winced as I put it into the recipe and grimaced as I ate the final product: just a little too salty even for briney old me. I point out these qualms only to make certain that you taste as you go along, as you should, really, with any recipe. James Beard was a man of monumental appetite—you might not be able to compete with him in all things.

Mustard Chicken

To make Mustard Chicken for four, dust 4 half chicken breasts lightly with flour, and sauté in a heavy skillet in 4 tablespoons butter and 2 tablespoons oil {As I said above, this is an awful lot of fat for sautéing, but it sure smells nice!} until nicely browned on all sides. Remove, spread each piece liberally with mustard (Dijon or herbed mustard or a paste of hot mustard or whatever you like) {Here’s the part of the recipe I love: The mustard isn’t stirred into the sauce, but smeared on the chicken like a poultice, thus preserving its intensity; as such, don’t use something weak like a honey mustard, lovely in other contexts but too mild mannered here.}, and put in a shallow baking dish.

In the fat remaining in the pan sauté 1 finely chopped medium onion for a couple of minutes, and add another tablespoon of butter if needed {This is not something you will need to do, I think.} and about 1/2 cup finely chopped mushrooms. {I hardly ever use button mushrooms anymore, but they do wonderful things for a dish like this, softening and enriching it like a kind of vegetal cream.} Sauté with the onion, then add 2 tablespoons chopped parsley, and salt and freshly ground pepper to taste—you won’t need much pepper because of the mustard. Then blend in 1 cup heavy cream and let it just heat through. Pour the mixture over the chicken, and bake in a 350-degree oven for about 30 to 35 minutes {I’d check the doneness earlier next time}, or until the chicken is tender when tested with a fork. Taste to see if the sauce needs more salt, and add a few drops of lemon juice. Serve at once with fluffy rice. {I can’t say how nice the combination of chicken and cream and mushrooms is here—it’s classic, but overlooked these days. If I did it again, I’d be inclined to use thighs, but that’s just because I like thighs better than breasts any day, especially in something braisey like this. I’d also cut the butter/oil back by half.}