The Atlantic

The ‘Great Man’ Theory of American Food

The prolific cookbook author James Beard helped shape the nation’s culinary identity—for better and for worse.
Source: Yale Joel / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty

In April 1954, James Beard flew from his home in New York to San Francisco and set out on a culinary road trip across the western U.S. The prolific cookbook author was about to turn 51, and feeling stuck in a loop of magazine deadlines, TV appearances, and product shilling. The hustle was constant, satisfaction elusive. “I am pooped, bitched, bushed, buggered and completely at sea with ennui and bewilderment,” Beard wrote to one of his road-trip companions before they left. “But off we go.”

As John Birdsall describes in his new biography of Beard, The Man Who Ate Too, the Portland, Oregon–born cook had spent much of his career trying to retool French classics for American housewives—boeuf bourguignon with a transatlantic accent. Like a lot of white American gourmands of the time, Beard saw France as the . “Thus far,” writes Birdsall, “James had fumbled at articulating a true American cooking.” This road trip finally turned his gaze homeward. En route, Beard and his friends ate blue cheese made in Oregon with Roquefort spores; baked shad and apple crisp; Swedish pancakes and French 75s. These meals electrified him. They amounted to his kind of American food—far from kitschy TV dinners, these dishes used local ingredients and bore an unforced resemblance to European classics. And, writes Birdsall, they confirmed Beard’s growing belief that “all good food in the present bore an echo of [his] past.”

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