James Andrews Beard was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1903 to Elizabeth and John Beard. His mother operated the Gladstone Hotel, and his father worked at the city's customs house. The family vacationed on the Pacific coast in Gearhart, Oregon, where Beard was exposed to Pacific Northwest cuisine.
Common ingredients of this cuisine are salmon, shellfish and other fresh seafood; game meats such as moose, elk, or venison; mushrooms, berries, small fruits, potatoes, kale and wild plants such as fiddleheads or young pushki (Heracleum maximum, or cow parsnip).
Beard's earliest memory of food was at the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition, when he was two years old. In his memoir he recalled:
I was taken to the exposition two or three times. The thing that remained in my mind above all others—I think it marked my life—was watching Triscuits and shredded wheat biscuits being made. Isn't that crazy? At two years old that memory was made. It intrigued the hell out of me.
At age three Beard was bedridden with malaria, and the illness gave him time to focus on the food prepared by his mother and their Chinese helper; this helped prepare him for life at the forefront of culinary American chic. According to Beard he was raised by Thema and Jue-Let, who instilled in him a passion for Chinese culture. Beard reportedly "attributes much of his upbringing to Jue-Let," whom he refers to as his Chinese godfather.
David Kamp wrote, "In 1940 he realized that part of his mission [as a food connoisseur] was to defend the pleasure of real cooking and fresh ingredients against the assault of the Jell-O-mold people and the domestic scientists." Beard lived in France during the 1920s, where he experienced French cuisine at its bistros. After this exposure and the widespread influence of French food culture, he became a Francophile.
Beard briefly attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Although he was expelled for homosexuality in 1922, the college granted Beard an honorary degree in 1976. In 1923 he joined a theatrical troupe and studied voice and theater abroad until 1927, when he returned to the United States.
After training as a singer and actor, Beard moved to New York City in 1937. Unlucky in the theater, he and friend Bill Rhodes capitalized on the cocktail party craze by opening Hors d'Oeuvre, Inc., a catering company. This led to lecturing, teaching, writing and the publication of Beard's first cookbook in 1940: Hors D'Oeuvre and Canapés, a compilation of his catering recipes. According to fellow cooking enthusiast Julia Child, this book put him on the culinary map. World War II rationing ended Beard's catering business. From August 1946 to May 1947, he hosted I Love to Eat, a live television cooking show on NBC, beginning his ascent as an American food authority. According to Child, "Through the years he gradually became not only the leading culinary figure in the country, but 'The Dean of American Cuisine'."
In 1952, when Helen Evans Brown published her Helen Brown's West Coast Cook Book, Beard wrote her a letter igniting a friendship that spanned until Brown's death. The two, along with her husband Phillip, developed a friendship which was both professional and personal. Beard and Brown became like siblings, admonishing and encouraging each other, as well as collaborating. According to the James Beard Foundation website, "In 1955, he established The James Beard Cooking School. He continued to teach cooking to men and women for the next thirty years, both at his own schools (in New York City and Seaside, Oregon), and around the country at women's clubs, other cooking schools, and civic groups. He was a tireless traveler, bringing his message of good food, honestly prepared with fresh, wholesome, American ingredients, to a country just becoming aware of its own culinary heritage." Beard brought French cooking to the American middle and upper classes during the 1950s, appearing on TV as a cooking personality. David Kamp (who discusses Beard at length in his book, The United States of Arugula) noted that Beard's was the first cooking show on TV. He compares Dione Lucas' cooking show and school with Beard's, noting that their prominence during the 1950s marked the emergence of a sophisticated, New York-based, nationally and internationally known food culture. Kamp wrote, "It was in this decade [the 1950s] that Beard made his name as James Beard, the brand name, the face and belly of American gastronomy." He noted that Beard met Alice B. Toklas on a trip to Paris, indicative of the network of fellow food celebrities who would follow him during his life and carry on his legacy after his death.
Beard made endorsement deals to promote products that he might not have otherwise used or suggested in his own cuisine, including Omaha Steaks, French's Mustard, Green Giant Corn Niblets, Old Crow bourbon, Planters Peanuts, Shasta soft drinks, DuPont chemicals, and Adolph's Meat Tenderizer. According to Kamp, Beard later felt himself a "gastronomic whore" for doing so. Although he felt that mass-produced food that was neither fresh, local nor seasonal was a betrayal of his gastronomic beliefs, he needed the money for his cooking schools. According to Thomas McNamee, "Beard, a man of stupendous appetites—for food, sex, money, you name it—stunned his subtler colleagues." In 1981 Beard and friend Gael Greene founded Citymeals-on-Wheels, which continues to help feed the homebound elderly in New York City.
Julia Child summed up Beard's personal life:
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.
Beard was gay. According to Beard's memoir, "By the time I was seven, I knew that I was gay. I think it's time to talk about that now." The second was Beard's admission of having "until I was about forty-five, I guess a really violent temper." Mark Bittman described him in a manner similar to Child's description:
In a time when serious cooking meant French Cooking, Beard was quintessentially American, a Westerner whose mother ran a boardinghouse, a man who grew up with hotcakes and salmon and meatloaf in his blood. A man who was born a hundred years ago on the other side of the country, in a city, Portland, that at the time was every bit as cosmopolitan as, say, Allegheny, Pennsylvania.
James Beard died of heart failure on January 21, 1985 at his home in New York City at age 81. He was cremated and his ashes scattered over the beach in Gearhart, Oregon, where he spent summers as a child.
In 1995, Love and Kisses and a Halo of Truffles: Letters from Helen Evans Brown was published. It contained excerpts from Beard's bi-weekly correspondence from 1952 to 1964 with friend and fellow chef Helen Evans Brown. The book gave insight to their relationship as well as the way that they developed ideas for recipes, projects and food.
After Beard's death in 1985, Julia Child wanted to preserve his home in New York City as the gathering place it was during his life. Peter Kump, a former student of Beard's and the founder of the Institute of Culinary Education (formerly Peter Kump's New York Cooking School), spearheaded efforts to purchase the house and create the James Beard Foundation. Beard's renovated brownstone at 167 West 12th Street in Greenwich Village, is North America's only historic culinary center. It is preserved as a gathering place where the press and general public could appreciate the talents of emerging and established chefs.
In 1986, the James Beard Foundation was established in Beard's honor to provide scholarships to aspiring food professionals and champion the American culinary tradition which Beard helped create. "Since its inception in 1991, the James Beard Foundation Scholarship Program has awarded over $4.6 million in financial aid to a variety of students—from recent high school graduates, to working culinary professionals, to career changers. Recipients come from many countries, and enhance their knowledge at schools around the world."
The annual James Beard Foundation Awards celebrate fine cuisine around Beard's birthday. Held on the first Monday in May, the awards ceremony honors American chefs, restaurants, journalists, cookbook authors, restaurant designers and electronic-media professionals. It culminates in a reception featuring tastings of signature dishes of more than 30 of the foundation's chefs. A quarterly magazine, Beard House, is a compendium of culinary journalism. The foundation also publishes the James Beard Foundation Restaurant Directory, a directory of all chefs who have presented a meal at the Beard House or participated in one of the foundation's outside fundraising events.
The foundation was affected by scandals; in 2004 its head, Leonard Pickell, resigned and was imprisoned for grand larceny and in 2005 the board of trustees resigned. During this period, chef and writer Anthony Bourdain called the foundation "a kind of benevolent shakedown operation." A new board of trustees has instituted an ethics policy and chosen a president, Susan Ungaro, to prevent future problems.Hors d'Oeuvre and Canapés (1940) M. Barrows & Co., revised in 1963 and 1985
Cook It Outdoors (1941) M. Barrows & Co.
Fowl and Game Cookery (1944) M. Barrows & Co.
The Fireside Cook Book: A Complete Guide to Fine Cooking for Beginner and Expert (1949) Simon & Schuster, reissued in 1982 as The Fireside Cookbook
Paris Cuisine (1952) Little, Brown and Company Beard co-wrote Paris Cuisine with British journalist Alexander Watt.
The Complete Book of Barbecue & Rotisserie Cooking (1954) Maco Magazine Corp., reissued in 1958 as New Barbecue Cookbook and again in 1966 as Jim Beard's Barbecue Cookbook
Complete Cookbook for Entertaining (1954) Maco Magazine Corp.
How to Eat Better for Less Money (1954) Simon & Schuster
James Beard's Fish Cookery (1954) Little, Brown, reissued in 1976 and 1987 in paperback as James Beard's New Fish Cookery
Casserole Cookbook (1955) Maco Magazine Corp.
The Complete Book of Outdoor Cookery (1955) Doubleday
The James Beard Cookbook (1959) Dell Publishing, revised in 1961, 1970, 1987 (paperback) and 1996
Treasury of Outdoor Cooking (1960) Golden Press
Delights & Prejudices: A Memoir with Recipes (1964) Atheneum, revised in 1981 and 1990
James Beard's Menus for Entertaining (1965) Delacorte Press
How to Eat (and Drink) Your Way through a French (or Italian) Menu (1971) Atheneum
James Beard's American Cookery (1972) Little, Brown and Company
Beard on Bread (1973) Alfred A. Knopf, revised in 1995 (paperback)
James Beard Cooks with Corning (1973)
Beard on Food (1974) Knopf
New Recipes for the Cuisinart Food Processor (1976)
James Beard's Theory & Practice of Good Cooking (1977) Knopf, revised in 1978, 1986, and 1990
The New James Beard (1981) Knopf, revised in 1989
Beard on Pasta (1983) Knopf
The Grand Grand Marnier Cookbook, with John Chang McCurdy (1982) TBWA Advertising, Inc., New York OCLC 25716217
Benson & Hedges 100's presents 100 of the world's greatest recipes (1976) Philip Morris Inc., New York OCLC 5867311
The James Beard Cookbook on CuisineVu (1987) A computer diskette with about 125 recipes from The James Beard Cookbook (unpublished)
James Beard's Simple Foods (1993) Macmillan ISBN 978-0-02508-070-6
Love and Kisses and a Halo of Truffles (1994) Arcade, edited by John Ferrone ISBN 978-1-55970-264-5
The James Beard Cookbooks (1997) Thames and Hudson, edited by John Ferrone
The Armchair James Beard (1999) The Lyons Press, edited by John Ferrone ISBN 978-1-55821-737-9
The Essential James Beard Cookbook (2012) St. Martin's Press ISBN 978-0-31264-218-1
The James Beard Papers are housed in the Fales Library at New York University.