Last fall I received an advance copy of a cookbook being released just in time for the holidays. It was actually a re-release of James Beard’s The Fireside Cookbook, originally published in 1949. Beard wrote The Fireside Cookbook as a basic guide to fine dining and its pages include recipes that run the gamut from basic appetizers to desserts with everything in between. Of course, that’s not uncommon for a cookbook. What I did find uncommon about the book was how versatile it was, and how well written. Even sixty years after its first printing, Beards humor was still fresh, and so was his advice to eaters about using only the best ingredients, in season, with minimal preparation.
The book came home with me so I could try a couple of recipes and maybe put up a blog post, but it has since become one of my favorite cookbooks. The dog-eared pages are sullied with flour and dried juices. I keep a large glass jar of Beard’s all purpose flour mix, which has become a staple of weekend morning breakfasts and can be transformed into anything from muffins, to drop biscuits to pancakes with minimal effort. The Fireside Cookbook easily bests classics like the Joy of Cooking, which is likely the least helpful cookbook in my collection.
To me, the fact that Beard’s work has stood the test of time—and in my novice kitchen, to boot—is a testament to the food genius that he was. But I didn’t really understand the extent of his influence on American and, most recently, Northwest cuisine until I watched OPB’s Oregon Experience and their documentary about Beard called A Cuisine of Our Own.
James Beard was born and raised in Portland, and though he lived and worked mostly in New York, we in Portland claim him for our own. We should. It’s clear from the Oregon Experience documentary that Beard’s education and growth in food is the story of how the Northwest has fed itself for the last hundred years.
I’m a fan of OPB, and it’s programs like A Cuisine of Our Own that prove to me how lucky we are to have them in our city. Throughout the 27 minute run time, the story of Beard’s life is punctuated with his recipes, prepared by David Machado (most recently of Nel Centro) and shot in sharp food porn close-ups. It’s quite a great story, even if the initial set-up—the “new” maverick, seasonal cuisine of the Northwest—is a bit old hat to serious eaters.
Maybe someday the recipes that I prepare out of The Fireside Cookbook will look as good as those Machado prepared for the small screen. I’ll keep looking forward to that day. In the meantime, the spirit of Beard will continue to inspire.
You can watch A Cuisine of Our Own on line here.