MAY 5, 1903 - JANUARY 21, 1985
James Beard, the bald and portly chef and cookbook writer who was one of the country's leading authorities on food and drink and its foremost champion of American cooking, died of cardiac arrest yesterday at the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. He was 81 years old and lived in Manhattan.
Mr. Beard was trying to finish a new cookbook, ''Menus and Memories,'' when he was hospitalized on Jan. 8 with a variety of health problems.
He had been an overweight child and a stout adult, but in the mid-1970's he developed heart disease and was forced to go on a severe low-calorie, no- salt diet that divested him of some of his heft.
But even with his strict new regime, food, in all of its most glorious manifestations, remained the great passion in his life. In a recent interview, he said that ''the secret of good cooking is, first, having a love of it.''
Mr. Beard, who lived in a Greenwich Village townhouse that contained his famous cooking school, was a pioneer in the postwar culinary awareness movement that turned tens of thousands of people into enthusiastic students and practitioners of the gastronomic arts.
In addition to writing two dozen books and hundreds of articles on gastronomic subjects, Mr. Beard had a weekly syndicated column and was a consultant to several restaurant chains and food and wine suppliers.
He was considered an important influence on many prominent figures in food writing, including Julia Child, Paula Peck, Marcella Hazan, Madhur Jaffrey and Craig Claiborne.
Mr. Beard, whose very appearance proclaimed his fascination with food - he was 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighed 275 pounds through most of his adult life - was on intimate terms with the most haute of cuisines, but he also possessed a fine appreciation for seemingly homely gustatory concoctions.
For example, while confessing a happily incurable addiction to fine caviar, he could state that he occasionally liked to dine on only a large portion of buttered new potatoes, if the potatoes were good, and that his idea of ''a most elegantly satisfying sandwich'' was a thick slice of onion between two thin slices of buttered bread.
Gourmet that he was, Mr. Beard disdained the use of the term. He saw some of the chic jargon, such as ''gourmet chef'' and ''gourmet dish,'' as ''particular abominations.''
He campaigned to have included on the menus of fine restaurants many simple American and English dishes, considering them deserving of equal rank with fancily named and intricately sauced French, Italian and other continental standards.
Among other personal topics in the memoir Mr. Beard was writing at the time of his death, he planned to make his sexual orientation abundantly clear to his fans. He tape-recorded reminiscences, used in 1990’s “The James Beard Celebration Cookbook,” that included the statement: “By the time I was 7, I knew that I was gay. I think it’s time to talk about that now.” Indeed, Mr. Beard was known as an exuberantly gay man. Anyone who knew him well knew him that way.
Mr. Beard’s acceptance and openness about his gay identity were not always so accepted by those around him. In the 1920’s he was expelled from Reed College in Portland, Oregon as a result of his relationship with other men. Nevertheless, he later maintained a 30-year relationship — at first romantic, then less so — with Gino Cofacci, who was provided for in Beard’s will.
Mr. Beard leaves no survivors. Caroline Stuart, an associate in Mr. Beard's cooking school, said yesterday that, according to his wishes, his body would be cremated and that there would be no funeral services.
This Life Story was created using original copyrighted articles and photographs from the New York Times:
“JAMES BEARD, AUTHORITY ON FOOD, DIES,” By ALBIN KREBS, 1985
“Food, Sex and Silence,” By Frank Bruni, April 22, 2017