Source: Bon Appetit.
Not a lot of food documentaries open with a red carpet scene. But in “James Beard: America’s First Foodie,” we see celebrity chefs mugging for the camera as flashbulbs pop at the James Beard Awards. Chefs, writers, and moguls are asked by the filmmakers to weigh in on the legacy of James Beard. One restaurateur, perhaps too candidly, admits that while everyone knows Beard’s name, few people actually know who he was. An hour-long episode of American Masters, which airs aims to change that.
The irony is that Beard, who helped pave the way for the cult of food personality, was a food TV failure. He hosted the first nationally televised cooking show, I Love to Eat, but was too early to the game (no one really had TVs in 1946). It wasn’t so much that his chili con carne and sponge cake weren’t right for the era. Audiences just didn’t take to him the way they did to, say, his good friend Julia Child. “It was love and envy,” said cookbook editor Judith Jones of Beard’s friendship with Child. “I don’t think Julia was envious of Jim but Jim was a little jealous of her.”
Though he wasn’t on TV for long, Beard inspired generations with his writing. One of his followers was a young Martha Stewart, who cooked and baked from Beard’s cookbooks (he wrote 22) and Sunday New York Times columns. She especially loved Beard on Bread, and, to this day, continues to bake from it. “I consider him like a mentor,” Stewart, who rarely gushes, gushed in the doc.
A glimpse into Beard’s early life reveals that his mother is largely responsible for the career trajectory of her accomplished son. Beard’s mother was also a culinary giant, and a great influence on Beard’s life. Elizabeth, who had James in 1903 when she was 42, taught her son everything from picking produce to how to entertain guests. She was an innkeeper in Portland, Oregon, a woman about town, and an excellent cook. “Mrs. Beard had an amazing palate, she was extremely discriminating, she herself was a gourmand,” said chef Lisa Schroeder, of Mother’s Bistro in Portland. “I hate to say it but I think she was really America’s first foodie.”
The film also explores Beard’s homosexuality, which was a detail often removed from stories about him, including biographies and obituaries. He was openly gay, and was kicked out of Portland’s Reed College for being so at a time when it was illegal. In a recent New York Times column, Frank Bruni wrote, “Our denial and ignorance kept bigotry in business.” The documentary restores to Beard his identity as a gay man, not just a man, who helped create American gastronomy as we know it.
Possibly the best thing that “America’s First Foodie” does is avoid deifying Beard, and paint him as the human that he was. He was a bon vivant with a tendency to flout the bill (Julian Niccolini of The Four Seasons restaurant said Mr. Beard was never presented with a check), lusty, if you believe Jeremiah Tower’s account of meeting Beard in his townhouse and seeing his robe accidentally-not-accidentally fall open during a meeting, and cuttingly witty (he once wrote: “A gourmet who thinks of calories is like a tart who looks at her watch”).
In today’s era of competition cooking shows, Instagram food stars, and manufactured culinary trends, America’s First Foodie is an artfully crafted reminder that it was a non-telegenic, lovable misfit who helped define American food culture.