Respecting James Beard’s Legacy

21 Apr

Great Chef, Gay Pioneer

Growing up, I knew who James Beard was in a casual sort of way. He was a famous chef who wrote cookbooks and appeared on television. I didn’t fully appreciate his significance, nor did I know how much we had in common. Recent events made me take another look at the great man and want to celebrate his legacy.

Beard was born in Portland, OR in 1903. He lived in my home state until he was in his 20s and had a great appreciation for the beauty of the Oregon coast. He also developed a great love of food, encouraged by his parents’ fondness for fresh ingredients and quality cooking.

He was also gay, a fact he realized by the age of seven and something he never tried to hide. This was very remarkable for his generation. He was kicked out of Reed College in 1922 because he was gay. (Anyone familiar with this quality school’s reputation for embracing the counter-culture will find that as strange and disappointing as I did.) I grew up gay in Oregon in the 70s and that was hard enough. Even though my grandmother says she knew I was gay when I was little, I buried myself in denial. While that spared me some of the difficulty that Beard encountered, I do regret the years I lost by not being able to be myself. Having discovered our shared roots, sexual orientation, love of good food, and enjoyment of Oregon’s coast, I wanted to know more.

I learned that he was interested in the theater, so he joined a traveling troupe. He honed his singing voice and his craft while enjoying the great food of Europe. He particularly fell in love with French cuisine. After Beard returned to the U.S., he found his acting ambitions frustrated, so he turned to his lifelong love and opened a catering company. He quickly rose to fame, appearing on television shows and publishing influential books on cooking. Just as Julia Child helped introduce French cooking to American homes, James Beard helped create the notion of truly American fine cuisine. As Child herself observed:

Beard was the quintessential American cook. Well-educated and well-traveled during his eighty-two years, he was familiar with many cuisines but he remained fundamentally American. He was a big man, over six feet tall, with a big belly, and huge hands. An endearing and always lively teacher, he loved people, loved his work, loved gossip, loved to eat, loved a good time.

He was also a philanthropist, helping found CityMeals-on-Wheels to feed the homebound elderly in New York, where he lived most of his adult life. After his death at the age of 82 (his ashes were scattered near Gearhart on the Oregon Coast), his friends and admirers — led by Julia Child — converted his home into a foundation. The James Beard Foundation provides scholarships to aspiring food professionals and champions the American culinary tradition that Beard helped create. Since 2001 the Beard Foundation has awarded over $2.2 million in scholarships and tuition waivers to young culinarians and career changers pursuing culinary studies.

The Foundation was rocked by scandal in 2004 and its head was imprisoned for grand larceny. The entire board resigned and the Foundation started from scratch under the leadership of Susan Ungaro. For her work in turning around the Foundation and her support of young Americans hoping to pursue a culinary education, Ungaro was recently honored with the Distinguished Citizen Award by the Boy Scouts of America. Ironically, that same group is notoriously anti-gay and would never have associated with the great James Beard. After being reminded by activist and commentator Michelangelo Signorile about the Scouts’ policies, Ungaro did the right thing: she refused the award.

While I support all the poverty and hunger-fighting programs of the Boy Scouts of America, including sending at-risk youth to camp, your report brought to my attention that accepting the Distinguished Citizen Award implied I support their anti-gay policy, which I absolutely do not… I have informed the Boy Scouts of America that I am rescinding my acceptance of the award.

Brava, Ms. Ungaro! Thank you for standing up against bravery and truly honoring the legacy of James Beard, whose foundation you lead. I’m sure he’s lifting a glass of wine in your honor with his trademark grin.

8 Responses to “Respecting James Beard’s Legacy”

  1. nevercontrary April 22, 2012 at 11:02 am #

    I have a few chef friends and to them getting the James Beard award in cooking is like winning an oscar. He sounds like a truly amazing man.

    • Robert Hulshof-Schmidt April 22, 2012 at 11:06 am #

      Yes, I was surprised to find out just how significant his work and awards are. Glad you liked the story.

      • nevercontrary April 22, 2012 at 5:23 pm #

        Robert are you Michael’s Husband? Or is my computer playing tricks on me?

      • Robert Hulshof-Schmidt April 22, 2012 at 6:48 pm #

        Yep, that’s me! I had this inspiration to post after learning more about James Beard and Michael agreed that it was a good fit for TSM. Glad to make your virtual acquaintance.

  2. nevercontrary April 23, 2012 at 5:08 pm #

    Hi ! Glad to finally meet you !!!

  3. Jay April 23, 2012 at 5:11 pm #

    Beard also helped to highlight some of the glorious local ingredients that Northwest chefs have in their culinary arsenals. I’m admittedly biased, but I’m confident that Northwest cooking tends to get overlooked compared to regional cooking

    And I was curious about the Reed story, and did a tad more research. The following is from their alumni magazine, so is hardly an objective source, but it expands on Reed College’s relationship with Beard:

    Editor’s Note: It was indeed a shame, and times have definitely changed. But the letter raises a fascinating point: was James Beard a true Reedie? He spent the bulk of his freshman year at Reed and cut a distinctive figure on campus. He won a prize for a Halloween dance costume in full drag, took part in operatic productions, was elected as the treasurer of the freshman class. Then, according to his biographer Robert Clark, he “became lovers with one or more male students and a professor” and was subsequently expelled. Unfortunately, we found nothing in the archives to shed further light on this episode, and Jim does not mention it in his autobiography. But there is little doubt that his time at Reed left a deep impression. After his death in 1985, he bequeathed most of his estate, including his collection of cookbooks, to the college, creating the James Beard Scholarship Fund. Reed presented him with an honorary degree in 1976. “There’s no doubt that Jim was expelled from Reed,” says lawyer (and former Reed trustee) Morris Galen, who represented Jim for the last 15 years of his life and helped draft his will. “But he wasn’t the kind of person to dwell on that. He held no animosity at all, not when I knew him. He felt very good about Reed, and was thrilled when he was awarded an honorary degree.” There is no absolute standard for declaring who is or who is not a Reedie, but we think Jim makes the grade!

    • Robert Hulshof-Schmidt April 23, 2012 at 5:22 pm #

      Thanks, Jay. That’s helpful information and makes a lot of sense. It’s fitting that Beard felt at home with and was celebrated by the Reed of the latter half of the 20th Century and telling that 1922 was a very different time.

  4. Jay April 23, 2012 at 5:27 pm #

    Apologies for the sentence fragment. I had intended “…compared to regional cooking styles like Southern, and Southwestern.”

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