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June 1, 2012 / johnpcarrollsf

On The Road

With a background in cryptography, James was generally good deciphering things. He knew the moment he tasted something what subtle changes might make a recipe work better, or what fillip of this or that would improve a dish.  In public, he could read his audience, or his interviewer, and think on his feet (or from his chair).  He could be extemporaneous and clever at the same time.

But on the road, in unfamiliar territory, when it came to figuring out directions, he was relatively useless.  Of course he  knew his way around Seaside and Gearhart, and he could find Mary Hamblet’s Portland house from anyplace.  But if we were invited to the home of a new friend, or we were in search of a good but remote restaurant we’d heard about, he was often lost.

I figured he had trouble getting his bearings because he didn’t drive and he never owned a car.  Since he lived most of his adult life in major cities, that wasn’t a problem.  In New York he relied on friends, walking (when he could), the subway, taxis, and later a car service that picked him up at his front door. Someone else was always in the driver’s seat.

As a passenger in an automobile, even though he wasn’t always right about directions, he was never uncertain, and he would insist we go the way he wanted.   And he absolutely refused to stop and ask for help.  “Just keep driving, we’ll find it,” he’d say with authority.   Sometimes, frustrated and impatient after lengthy searching and backtracking,  he’d order, “Turn around, we’re going back home.”

“But James, we’re not there yet.  We’ll find it”

“I don’t care, we’re going back home.”

When his frustration began to rise, yes, it was best to go back home.

Among  friends, his favorite drivers were women.  “Julia (Child),” is a wonderful driver,” he’d say, “and so was Helen (Evans Brown).”   He and Mary Hamblet took several west coast road trips in her early 60s beige Chevy Nova–the car she kept for the rest of her driving life.  He thought Marion Cunningham was a good driver, too, “And I know we’ll get there fast.”

Mary Hamblet and Marion Cunningham both drove with him in Europe, on various trips, and each had brushes with the law.  Unlike James, Marion thrived on asking directions.  “Because I drive so much and I’m always lost, I get to know every service station attendant.”

Traveling in their rented car through the South of France, one of James’ directives caused Marion to make an illegal move.  When they were pulled over, Marion, who spoke no French, pointed to James, and said , “He’s a very famous chef.”  James said a few words to the officer in French, as the officer wrote a citation.  The cop handed Marion a ticket, and they drove on.

Mary Hamblet was motoring (a term she preferred to “driving”) with James through

St.- Remy one holiday season.   They were pulled over,  though James was sure they’d nothing wrong.  He got out of the car and began shouting at the officer, and Mary could see in her mirror that he was waving a finger in the officer’s face.

Mary got out of the car and urged him to calm down.  “James,  be quiet, you’re going to get us arrested and I don’t want to go to jail!”  (Mary was perhaps the only person who could tell him to calm down and be quiet, yet remain his friend.)

“We’re not going to jail,” he barked at her,  “around here, it’s which one can yell louder.”

His assurance paid off, because after the  exchange, which Mary did not understand, they were allowed  to  drive on.

James and I drove  from San Francisco to Seaside, and back several times, always in the summer and fall.  He loved the autumn colors (yes, Northern California had some fall foliage), and would compare the landscape to a Persian carpet.   If we didn’t pack food for the road, then lunch was usually fast food.  One lovely October day, going from Portland to San Francisco, we stopped at Wendy’s, in Roseburg, Oregon.   James had heard of the chain, but never eaten there.  We sat with our hamburgers (which he liked), and a pleasant young man came to the table and immediately struck up a conversation about bread.  James cheerfully responded and they had a friendly exchange. As he left, the man said, “Boy, I can’t wait to tell everybody I saw James Beard at Wendy’s.”

With a booming laugh James responded, “I’ll make a deal.  I won’t tell anybody I saw you here if you don’t tell anybody you saw me here!”

September 29, 2011 / johnpcarrollsf

A Trio of Jameses

During his lengthy stays in San Francisco, James liked going to restaurants.  By his own admission, he was generally a “creature of habit” when dining out.  He tended to frequent the places he knew, and where they knew him.  But if the circumstances were right, he was up to venturing someplace new.

Though he and I went to many restaurants together, I particularly recall the first.  ( I will write about some of the others later.)    One clear and crisp winter afternoon in early 1980, he, Marion Cunningham and I walked from the Stanford Court Hotel, down Powell Street, to the airline offices that were then adjacent to Union Square.  Though walking was difficult for him, and the pavement was steep, he said “I’m okay if I walk on the corduroy,” referring to the rippled texture of the sidewalk, which helped ensure his footing.  (That texture is there to this day.)

At the American Airlines counter, James purchased his return ticket to New York.    Then the three of us walked about two blocks to a tiny cafe on Mason Street, called Fortnum’s On Mason, recently opened by a former Stanford Court employee, James Macky.

The cafe was tiny, with just a few tables and a menu of salads and sandwiches, as I recall.  Mr. Beard was deeply touched when Mr. Macky told him there would be no check.  Mr. Beard rarely went to any restaurant expecting to eat for free.

Sadly, the name did not last long, once Mr. Macky received a cease and desist letter from Fortnum & Mason in London.  Mr. Beard, disheartened by the turn of events for his restaurateur friend, and displaying his fondness for actors, acting, and clever wording, suggested the cafe be renamed, quite appropriately,  James’ on Mason.

September 1, 2011 / johnpcarrollsf

Private Dining

“I’ve lived almost eighty years, and I’m going to be killed by a taco,” James said after  a night of retching, following a Mexican dinner prepared by a long-standing San Francisco acquaintance and cooking teacher.

That evening was an exception.  He was generally a congenial guest, happy to be invited to the home of either an old friend or a new student from the classes.  On these occasions, he did not care to dispense  cooking advice, nor did he want to be summoned to the kitchen to take a look at some recipe-in-progress.  Ideally, he wanted lively company,  good Scotch on the rocks and simple meal prepared with respect for the ingredients.

I was often included in these gatherings, and from those times I learned something–something that has stayed with me to this day:   People who like food, and see it as a way of bringing friends together in a convivial atmosphere, are the easiest guests to cook for.  They will eat most anything,  and they love it when someone else is at the stove.  If you have any chefs, authors, or even the best cooks in town in your retinue, don’t be afraid  to invite them over.  They will be among the most appreciative diners you could ever have at your table.  It’s fussy, persnickety eaters, with a narrow range of tastes, who are intimidating and difficult to please.  Whenever someone, via a chance encounter, would say to James, “I’d be afraid to invite you over, ” his standard response was, “Try me!”

In the 1980s he was right in tune with the emphasis that both home cooks and chefs were putting on local foods.   In Oregon, he was thrilled when Maryon Greenough, at a summer dinner in her home in Gearhart, served us a first course of Seaside peas, picked and shelled that day, cooked briefly at the height of their sweetness, and tossed hot with butter and a little salt .

If you invited him to dinner, you couldn’t go wrong a well-prepared chicken, as long as there was ample dark meat.  He had little use for the breast.  He looked forward to going to Chuck Williams’ home, a jewel box of a place on Golden Court in San Francisco.  Chuck had a less is more approach to cooking, which was reflected in his meals.  “Chuck roasts a chicken with one herb, not five or six, and it’s perfect,” James said.    He swooned over Marion Cunningham’s fried chicken with mashed potatoes, biscuits and gravy.   And he looked forward to time with Marion’s husband, Robert.  Although one man lived for food and the other didn’t really give a hoot about it, they were kindred spirits, each with an analytical mind.

So strong was James’ distaste for white fresh poultry, one Thanksgiving he had Marion roast two smaller turkeys, rather than one large one, to ensure plenty of thighs and drumsticks for the dark meat lovers she was having at her table.  Even for an accomplished cook roasting a turkey is a chore; roasting two is a madhouse.

He derived great pleasure from Maggie Gin’s cooking and her company, and found her presense exhiliarating.  “Although,” he’d say out of fondness  the next morning, “There’s a lot of empahsis on the gin.”

He enoyed the hospitatliy of Denise and Prentis Hale on numerouus occasions, both at their home in San Francisco  (where the dinner parties were intimate) and their ranch in northern California (where there was usually a large group for a weekend).  Although he was  living a medically dictated wine-free existance  (“Sometimes I loathe this wine-free regeime I’m on.”),  he’d stray from doctor’s orders for the exceptional French–and some carefully choosen California–wines the Hales cellared and served.  “But I have to be  careful what I say about the Reagans when I’m there.”   He was not a fan, and he would occasionally lament, “We just don’t have any trained statesmen anymore.”

One dinner I remember in particular was the fall of 1980,  held at the home of James’ Portland friend Ruth Minary.   In the previous weeks, James had been honored by the Oregon Historical Society, finished work  on The New James Beard, was hired  by All in Style (a Sunday supplement magazine) to write a regular column, and been profiled by reporter David Arnold  in the Eugene Register-Guard (with wonderful and touching photographs by Brian Lanker).   That evening he truly relished his own success, and he was as happy as I’d ever seen him.

It was a rather dressy evening, in a grand  home, and I remember  lots of silver–both the flatware and the accoutrements–in the dining room.  Several of his old Portland friends were  among the guests.  I wore a Harris tweed blazer, which I’d  recently purchased at the Halliday Place department store in Seaside.  During dinner, I got quite warm, so  I removed my jacket and hung it on the back of my chair.  In the car on the way back to the Benson Hotel, James scolded me.  “John, I don’t care if you come to the table naked, but if you come to the table with a jacket on, keep in on for the meal.”

July 13, 2011 / johnpcarrollsf

Beard and Words

While listening to James Beard  recorded, from a series of  cooking lesson cassette tapes he did circa thirty years ago, I realized what a soothing voice he had.  Even my husband John said, “I really like listening to him, and I didn’t even know him.”  You could tell by his tone and intonations that he was comfortable behind the microphone, and that he was a performer at heart.  Or, “ninety percent ham,” as Julia Child once noted.  Lovingly, of course.   (In my limited search, the  Cook  Along with James Beard tapes are quite hard to come by now.)

James loved language, and he had clever ways with words.  French expressions  were woven in and out of his speech, and he would translate, sometimes grudgingly, if I didn’t understand.  Many of  his references were obscure, at least to me; they were of a well-traveled story-teller of his time and background, knowledgeable of art, history and literature.   He had the vocabulary of a self-educated individual, who had learned many things the hard way,  with a sense of humor that ranged from savvy to silly.  To wit, the silliness: In his Greenwich Village home, hanging over the kitchen sink, was a stained glass panel that read “Frozen  Hot Chocolate.”

One of James’ favorite people in Seaside  was Maryon Greenough.  Maryon taught at Seaside High School, and it was through her connections that we were able to use the home economics department for the Oregon summer cooking classes.  “Jim is as close as we will ever know to a true genius,” Maryon said after dinner with us one evening.  Theirs was a mutual admiration, and he enjoyed their banter, and her clever ways with language, both spoken and written.

In conversation, his words were colorful, and his humor  often spicy and a little naughty.  He loved “exchanging information,” not gossiping, though he was rarely mean-spirited.  At the grocery store, or at a party, he pick up some unidentified or unrecognizable little tidbit,  eye it suspiciously, and mutter, “What’s this little turd of misery.”

The bathroom was always the “loo,” saying goodbye or good night was “see you anon,” and  his morning shower was a “feeble ebullition.”  A disagreement was a “row,” and a heated argument was a  “major row.”  Anything that tricked the eyes momentarily was often an “optional illusion.”  (That  one really makes great sense, when you think about it.)  Guests who had had a bit too much to drink were “squiffy,” while those who were annoyingly intoxicated were “ass over teapot” drunk.

If someone close to him was yearning for something that was likely unattainable,  he might say, “She wants softshell crabs for Christmas and oysters in July.”   Other individuals, especially seniors, who were slightly bewildered or eccentric were either “pixilated” or “addlepated,” or likened to “something on the end of a stick.”

For years, he and Marion Cunningham spoke every morning.  Both were early risers.  She could phone him at 5:30 California time, knowing  that by 8:30 New York time, he’d already had several calls.  Like Marion, he loved the telephone. For years, she gave him much of the credit for her success.  (Though her initial boost came with his help, her own hard work and sense of what was right for the time carried her through to a remarkable career of her own.)

Marion knew first hand that his words could also be pointed.  At the Stanford Court Hotel in San Francisco,  James, Marion and I were in the service elevator (it was more convenient to his suite than the passenger elevators at the far end of the hall), going from his seventh floor suite to the lobby.  “James, you’ve enriched my life so much,” Marion said, “how could I ever repay you?”  He leaned heavily on his cane, his eyes fixed on the elevator doors, and as they parted he said, “Marion, you can’t.”

April 28, 2011 / johnpcarrollsf

Old Friends

James Beard, living life as a famous and well-traveled individual,  had hundreds of acquaintances.  And like most people,  he had a handful of a true friends.  And although he wasn’t generally a sentimental man, his Pacific Northwest roots were important to him, and to most of his early Portland friends, he was always “Jamie.”   He would hear occasionally from Marion Kingery, Hattie Cass (a comrade from his acting days, whom he affectionately called “the thwarted thespian”) and Harriet Coe.  His closest pals were women, and I liked it when they called or visited.  It was an educational respite for me, breaking up our sometimes monotonous days.  Hearing their conversations, I got to know James better, and differently.  He rarely talked food with these people; most of them weren’t cooks, and they weren’t interested in that aspect of his life.  They talked travel, theater, opera, and books–things that reflected their common cultural interests.   Sometimes they’d talk health, and allude to the difficulties and frustrations of aging.

Harriet was one of my favorites, a worldly woman with a strong personality, great style and humor.  As James pointed out to me after visiting her beach house in Gearhart, “Harriet was always a wise girl,” and it really tickled him,  that from birth through marriages, Harriet Cuming Corbett Coe  never had to change the monogram on her towels.

His closest confidante, and most enduring life partner, was Mary Hamblet.  Neither one of them had any living family, and that further strengthened their bond.  Mary’s presence brought out the best in James.  They had known one another since she was three and he was four, and Mary told her mother, “I don’t want to play with that fat little boy.”  He got even, though:  when they were children playing on the beach, he made her eat sand cakes.  She obviously overcame any aversion to his size, and they loved one another very much–that was obvious just seeing them together.

James and Mary traveled together, spent many holidays together, confided in each other, and most of all, completely enjoyed one another’s company.  I remember sitting in Mary’s living room, he drinking Scotch, she sipping bourbon, both drinking more than they should, and listening to them talk about the quality of their respective lives and infirmities.   Mary was one of the few people with whom James would talk openly, and seriously,  about the challenges of growing old.   For almost everyone else, he could put on a good show.  And she was equally comfortable with him.   Mary was tough, not one to wear her emotions on her sleeve (as she would admit), except when she had to say goodbye to James.  “I always think it could be the last time I see him,” she told me, teary eyed,  after taking him to the airport.

Mary had a tiny house, a perfectly charming cottage in the Portland Heights neighborhood, on SW Fern Street.   Her bungalow was surrounded by large, grand homes.   “I’ve got the worst house in the best neighborhood,” she’d say, “which is better than having the best house in the worst neighborhood.”  Mary had worked as an antique dealer, and handled many estate sales.  She had wonderful taste in furnishings and a great collection of porcelain (an interest that she and James shared), and her  home was filled with treasures. On one wall of her living room, hung dozens of polished horse brasses, and throwback to her equestrian days.

Mary used to joke that although she’d been riding on James Beard’s coattails for decades, his talent for cooking never rubbed off on her.  “I have three things I can do,” she’d proclaim after a couple of cocktails.  “Florence Bingham’s Easy Chicken, roast wild duck, and deviled crab”   (The chicken is in American Cookery, and the crab recipe, which is credited to Mary’s mother, appears in Delights & Prejudices).  Bye the time she was well into her 70s, most of her duck-hunting male friends were either “no longer with us or no longer hunting.”  Now she was down to two things.  She could also make Irish soda bread as a starchy go-along–but nothing with yeast.

I made Florence Bingham’s Easy Chicken recently.  And it is easy–so easy a smart child could probably do it.   There is no browning of the meat, no splattering grease, it bakes practically unattended, and the sauce makes itself.  With only a couple minor adjustments, I did it as written in American Cookery.  Or, as James always called it, “the American book.”  I used legs and thighs, in a 13- x 9-inch glass baking dish (I did not line the pan with foil).   Before serving, I scattered of mix of chopped cilantro and green onions over the chicken, a nice compliment to the Asian-inspired flavors.  The leftover chicken was marvelous the next day, cold, with with rye bread and chutney.

April 10, 2011 / johnpcarrollsf

Meals We Shared

Occasionally people  ask me what James Beard and I ate, or how we cooked, when we were together.    During the time I spent with him, he and I shared, and prepared, many meals.  Probably hundreds of them, in fact, as he could not countenance a day without sitting at a table–or sitting somewhere–for breakfast, lunch and dinner.   But like most cookbook writers I know, when he wasn’t immersed in the recipe testing or writing of one book or another, James Beard ate quite  simply.  He was more concerned with freshness and flavor than variety.

Breakfast was consistent.   Every day he had  tea and toast, preferably toast of good-quality bread, homemade or from a local shop or baker.  The tea was Earl Grey or Darjeeling. He was not a coffee-drinker, so I’d make a small Melior pot of coffee for myself.  He was then seventy-eight, and his morning rituals were firmly set.  Although he had a passion for peanut butter, I was surprised when he started following my  habit of spreading his morning toast with Laura Scudder peanut butter, rather than butter.   “I feel so virtuous,” he’d say with a chuckle.  And I felt, for a moment, a bit of influence over him.

Our kitchen had limited equipment, and no teapot,  so he’d make his tea in my larger Melior (a far cry from the fine porcelain pots he had at home), letting it steep, then plunging the leaves to the bottom of the carafe when the tea was ready to pour.   He got a kick out of that.  I was twenty-five, and wondered how such a well-traveled man of the world could be amused by such a small thing as pushing tea leaves to the base of a glass carafe.   But he was not at all adverse to  making do with what little equipment we had in our rented condominium, and in utilitarian moments, he knew that less could be more.  Of course he already knew that you don’t need fancy accoutrements to cook and eat well.  Sometimes it takes enthusiastic new cooks a long time to learn that.

Lunches were simple, and often pieced together from leftovers from the previous evening’s dinner.  He loved the ocean, and occasionally we’d stop at either the supermarket or deli, and gather picnic foods–rye bread, mustard, sliced ham, maybe some pickles–then drive to the beach.  If he wasn’t up to the effort of hoisting himself from the car, getting out and sitting on the beach wall,  we’d have lunch right where we were, parked so he could see the water and hear the waves crashing.  Tillamook Head, where he is pictured on the book jacket of  Delights & Prejudices, was his favorite spot for a front seat picnic.  The ocean had a calming influence on him, and his problems and occasional crankiness seemed to disappear when we were there.   If I needed to broach a difficult subject, that was the place to do it.

We shopped for dinners daily, yet I have few specific memories of our evening meals.    Perhaps that’s because we usually ate what he wanted, and I didn’t have much input.  Not beyond the peanut butter on his toast, anyway.  Our grocery buying was done at Safeway or Fenton’s.  While nosing around (he love to smell everything) the markets, he’d say,   “That sounds good to you for tonight, doesn’t it?,”  implying what he’d like.   Fenton’s was a nearby family owned produce market.  I remember their fruits and vegetables were beautiful and the bins and displays of produce were bountiful.  We never went with a specific list, we just bought what looked appealing.  Wherever we shopped, he relished being recognized by employees as well as other customers.

I knew how much pleasure he got from food, so I didn’t mind deferring in those choices– except when he wanted broiled kidneys, one thing I could not stomach.   Mostly, I recall that dinners were simple.  In fact simplicity was paramount to him.  For this was a man, when served a fancy, fussy  dish at a restaurant or banquet, would describe it as, “so precious, it should be garnished with carved peas.”

Taste is what really mattered.   Usually we prepared meat or chicken, sometimes fish, broiled or occasionally barbecued.  He liked marinating, and he enjoyed flank steak for its flavor and texture.  With the long, flat steak on a platter, he’d drizzle it with  oil, then whack a couple of cloves of garlic with the flat side of a knife and chop them coarsely, and  spread the fragrant paste over the meat.   A drizzle of lemon juice and plenty of ground pepper was the final fillip.  The spreading and rubbing was always done with his hands, never a spoon or spatula.  That was it, and the steak stayed on the kitchen counter, at room temperature, for two or three hours before cooking.  He believed that when food was purchased fresh daily, and prepared within hours, refrigeration wasn’t necessary.    In fact, it tasted better never refrigerated.  “We refrigerate way too much,” he’d grumble.    Vegetables depended on what was fresh and looked good.   When they were in season, peas from Seaside and  corn from nearby Brownsmead were his favorites.  For a special occasion, if salmon cheeks were available to accompany the corn and peas, that, to James Beard, was the bounty of the Oregon coast at its best.

March 11, 2011 / johnpcarrollsf

James Beard Remembered

From 1980 to early 1984, I worked closely with James A. Beard on the west coast.  This included his annual cooking classes, held during the  summer in Seaside, Oregon, and in the winter at the Stanford Court Hotel in San Francisco.  It also involved some travel to Southern California, for book promotions and media appearances.  James Beard had experienced life all over the world, and although New York City was his home base,  he loved  San Francisco.  During the time I knew him, he spent about three months here every year. “This city just gets into your blood,” he’d say.   He felt comfortable, and very indulged, as a beloved guest surrounded by long-time friends and many admirers.  And, perhaps most significantly,  he was away from the pressures of his home in Manhattan.

Our longest period together was in the summer and fall of 1980, spent in Gearhart, Oregon.  Following the July classes in nearby Seaside, he worked on the final queries for his latest book, The New James Beard, then planned to begin work on a second volume of his memoirs.  The first volume, Delights & Prejudices, had been published in the 60s.  For the first  weeks, our mutual friend and Beard colleague Marion Cunningham was also there, to work on the cooking classes.  When the sessions concluded, she stayed on for a few days, then returned home to California.  After Marion left and  the cooking students dispersed,  it was just the two of us,  James and John, sharing a condominium, rented from a Mrs. Felkins, in the small coastal town of Gearhart.    Gearhart  was a quiet place, once the summer vacation season ended, and we got to know each other’s personalities quite well.

About a year ago, Chuck Williams, the founder of Williams-Sonoma and a close friend of James’,  said,”Jim Beard never really got the credit he deserved for all that he did for American cooking.”   I agree.   Certainly some of his books were successful, and he had a weekly syndicated newspaper column, he taught with enthusiasm and curiosity, and  was an engaging man and a great raconteur,.  In the early 1980s, a major industry magazine named James Beard and Julia Child the most influential people in food in America.  Television success, however, eluded him, though he was a natural performer.  His personality, girth and voice (which had been trained in opera) were a better fit for an auditorium or theater than for the small screen.  Then, as now, nothing spelled success like the combination of television (or any other  screen) and publishing.  Books are wonderful, television can reach a huge audience, and together they can make a blockbuster.

Once, during a department store cooking class, a student asked Marion Cunningham how James Beard got his start.  “His career began at birth, really,” she said.  Throughout  his life, he loved company, he relished attention, and he enjoyed being recognized.  He wanted to be famous, he just wasn’t sure how he’d get there.  His mind was packed with information, yet he always wanted to know more, and he had a memory that Marion once likened to a Rolodex. All he had to do was sit quietly for a moment, processing his thoughts, and the information he wanted would pop up.  You could almost see an imaginary light bulb start to flicker  over his large head.

When I first began reading James Beard’s books and newspaper columns, in the 70s, I thought he wrote about food very simply, and casually.    I learned years later that he had the same gift as a great actor who makes you believe his character.   In other words, it took a lifetime of living, eating and traveling  in order to make it appear so natural.  The man, like many of his recipes, was greater than the sum of his parts.   It helped to know him personally, to know how brilliant he really was.

For now,  I will periodically write about the James Beard I knew, while cooking frequently from his books–particularly Beard on Food , which was reissued in 2007, and James Beard’s American Cookery, which was reissued in 2010.   He was quite proud that, when American Cookery was first published in 1972, it weighed almost five  pounds.  “Maybe  it should have sold by the pound,” he joked.  Possibly the book lost weight as it aged.  My seventh printing, from the late 70s, weighs in at about three and one-half pounds.

John Phillip Carroll is a San Francisco-based writer and cookbook author.  His most recent book, Pie Pie Pie, was published by Chronicle Books.