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.