You can’t talk about the rise of American cookery and modern foodie culture without ending up at James Beard.
Born in Portland, Ore., in 1903, Beard was an epicure and educator extraordinaire. The New York Times called him “one of the country’s leading authorities on food and drink and its foremost champion of American cooking”; others dubbed him “America’s first foodie.” He published nearly two dozen popular books about cooking, wrote a syndicated food column carried by 65 newspapers, and was the first to demonstrate cooking techniques on national television.
Bald and six-foot-three, Beard weighed just under 300 pounds most of his life. He could be both acerbic and generous, and his influence was broad—Julia Child, Craig Claiborne, Madhur Jaffrey and a host of others credited him with helping shaping how they thought about food.
In less obvious ways, James Beard shaped how America drank.
Beard moved to New York during Prohibition; after Repeal the cocktail party entered into its mania stage. Evan Jones noted in his 1988 biography of Beard, Epicurean Delight, that he found cocktail hours distasteful, and considered them as a “bastard form of entertainment.” In particular, the food offended him. “We had eaten too many pieces of cottony bread soggy with processed cheese, anchovy fillets by the yard, and dried up bits of ham and smoked salmon. The ghastly potato-chip dip invention had only begun to spread across the country,” Beard wrote.
In this arid dessert of cheerless food, Beard sensed a business opportunity. In 1938 he and two partners opened a catering outfit on Manhattan’s Upper East Side called Hors d’Oeuvre Inc. They eschewed little, bready sandwiches in favor of more elegant fare. (“We used tiny tomatoes which were a novelty in those days,” Beard wrote, “and I'm sure we were the first to stuff them.”)
The success of his more refined and inventive cocktail fare led to his first book contract, in 1940, for Hors D’oeuvres and Canapes. (Recommended by one newspaper “for the hostess who wants to add new and unusual tidbits to the cocktail tray.”) The book which would go on to two subsequent editions and add fuel to Beard’s upward career as a food writer, included a chapter on cocktails, although no one would accuse it of being overly adventurous.
“There’s a section on cocktails in that book, but it’s quite straightforward,” says John Birdsall, who is currently researching a new biography, James Beard: The Man Who Ate Too Much, for W.W. Norton. (No publication date is set.) He mostly advised on classics and the tried-and-true. “No cocktail inventions in that book,” Birdsall says.
But his approach was surprisingly contemporary. Beard discouraged the massive 80 to 100 person parties then popular, and prodded readers to stage a series of smaller cocktail parties, with never more then 20 guests, which allowed hosts to mingle. This sort of living-room gathering went on to become ubiquitous in midcentury, John-Cheever America. Beard also suggested “a sensible way to provide civilized drinks at a party, and very modern,” Birdsall notes. “Serve one special drink and then offer just two other cocktails to your guests—maybe an Old Fashioned and a Martini. It’s hard to make a lot of cocktails and you didn’t want to keep your guests waiting.”
After World War II, Beard reinvented himself as an expert in outdoor cookery and grilling, publishing a popular book on that topic. To earn extra cash he worked at Sherry Wine and Spirits (now Sherry-Lehmann), an upscale shop founded the year after Repeal. Beard became vastly knowledgeable about wine, and began contributing wine write-ups and cocktail recipes to the firm’s well-respected catalogs.
In 1956, Beard took on the updating of the Standard Bartender’s Guide, which had been written in 1940 by Patrick Gavin Duffy, the noted New York bartender, and a staple among professional barmen. But Beard was even more influential as an educator to a broader public, and went on to contribute stories to dozens of magazines and newspapers, including a series in House & Garden, in which he undertook deep dives into spirits.
He was a fan of “white brandies”—or eau de vie. “They are so dry the first sip startles your tongue,” he wrote. He considered framboise the most regal of the bunch, with each quart requiring 40 pounds of raspberries. “If you find a bottle, buy it promptly and treat it with respect,” he wrote in 1957.
Beard believed vodka—then still a novel liquor—served an admirable role: drinks made with it for pre-dining cocktails would “not ruffle your taste buds so you miss the true flavor of wines served at dinner.” He was also fond of whiskey “I have a great love of Scotch. As matter of fact, it’s my tipple.”
In these stories, he revealed himself as someone who viewed a good cocktail or spirit not so much transformative as transportive—a well-curated glass could whisk you someplace exotic. “As a child growing up on the West Coast, I often heard family friends just back from a trip to the Orient talking about the wonderful gin slings they had at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, or the unusual concoction they’d tasted in Kobe, Hong Kong or Manilla,” he wrote.
For Beard, the most romantic of spirits was rum. “I can’t taste rum without visualizing Yankee clipper ships in full sail, palm-fringed Caribbean inlets inhabited by buccaneers, and dimly lit waterfront taverns of the 18th century where our forebears studied maps of buried treasure and planned how to run the British blockade,” he wrote.
He enthused about the varied styles of rum in an era when Bacardi tended to be alpha and omega—Beard like to emphasize how Jamaican rums varied from those made on Martinique or Cuba. He encouraged readers to explore different rum styles. “Each rum has its own special flavor and quality,” he wrote in 1959. “Indeed, one of the assets of rum as a drink is the wide choice of types and their versatility.” When so much of the rest of the country was in a centripetal pull toward sameness, Beard celebrated far-flung differences. Consider: his 1959 a story titled Drinks of the Orient, Plain and Fancy, was published directly across from an ad for the Aspic Cook Book.
Embracing novelty and quality was central to his approach—drink what you like, ignore what you don’t, and don’t be intimidated by anyone on any side. “Wine, like modern art, hi-fi, and growing a good lawn, can be as esoteric a specialty as you care to make it,” he once wrote. “Do not insist on drinking only imported wines. Do not be a chauvinist who insists that only American wines are really good...”
And, for the love of pete, don’t be hemmed in by what the “right” people do and don’t. “I had never considered it as julep fuel before,” he once wrote of Scotch, which he admitted to liking in a julep and no doubt offending many. “He was so open, he had such a general love of food, and I think he encouraged everybody,” said Julia Child in a 1994 interview.
“He was extremely catholic in his tastes,” John Birdsall concurs. “I think possibly part of that was he wanted to be as commercial as possible and so he would write about anything an editor asked him to.”
Beard wasn’t infallible when it came to drink. He touted the screwdriver (two ounces of vodka and orange juice) as “ideal for a Sunday brunch in that it combines the cocktail and the first course.” He once also spoke highly of a “vodka daiquiri.”
Beard’s gusto when it came to food and drink raised concern among doctors later in life—they believed it contributed to his poor health. He was often instructed to give up drinking when undergoing a diet program to improve the circulation in his legs, and was instructed to consume only non-carbonated mineral water. Yes, but no. Birdsall says his friends would sneak Champagne and Scotch into his hospital room, understanding that for Beard to live without what he loved was to not live at all.
Beard was 81 years old when he died of a heart attack in 1985. Today, successive generations of bartenders and restaurateurs often learn about him though the awards for culinary excellence bestowed in his name, and the formal dinners regularly prepared at his New York townhouse, now maintained by the James Beard Foundation.
Beard will of course forever be associated with food. But fine cocktails and spirits can—and no doubt should—make a credible claim for him as well.