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James Beard's American Cookery

(article, Keri Fisher)

There are many words you can use to describe James Beard, but “concise” isn’t one of them. His 800-plus-page opus, James Beard's American Cookery, features 1,500 recipes that span lifetimes and a nation. Or, as Beard calls it in his introduction, “It is simply a record of good eating in this country with some of its lore.” 

Published in 1972, American Cookery reads like a much older book, with a personal style and folksy feel that’s vaguely nostalgic; recipes include the 1940s-sounding “Mrs. Fleischner’s Stuffed Artichokes” and “Mrs. Harland’s Fricassee of Lamb Tongues.” 

In the 1970s, it was all too easy to dismiss American cooking as nothing more than a liberal borrowing of French and Italian dishes and techniques. But Beard rejects such notions. “Today more and more people are forced to agree that we have developed one of the more interesting cuisines of the world,” he writes. “It stresses the products of the soil, native traditions, and the gradual integration of many ethnic forms into what is now American cooking.” Yet he also concedes, “I do not overlook the grotesqueries of American cooking.”

I never knew James Beard, but I certainly feel as if I did after reading this book. His recipes aren’t simply lists of ingredients and succinct instructions on how to prepare them. His notes don’t give rote histories (though there is plenty of historical information) or trite references. 

Of Boston Baked Beans, Beard writes, “The worship of Boston baked beans is a mystery to me, since my palate cannot reconcile the sweetness of syrup or molasses and the simple hardy flavor of pork and beans.” Steak with Wine Sauce gets a similar drumming: “This very old recipe with English overtones is more a curiosity than a dish suitable for today’s repertory.”

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Beard is honest about what he does and doesn’t know. Of Raisin Pie, he writes, “Called ‘funeral pie’ in some parts of the United States. Why, I’m not sure.” And after offering an oft-repeated tale of the origins of Anadama Bread, he says, “You can accept that story or not, as you like.”

For those of us who think that edible weeds are a modern novelty, think again. Beard writes that fiddlehead ferns “are considered a great delicacy,” and recommends they be eaten with butter or Hollandaise (okay, that’s a bit dated). American Cookery was clearly ahead of its time (just like another product of the early 1970s, Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse restaurant). But this is also a book that calls for the liberal use of bacon fat, even in dishes like stir-fried vegetables. To the end, Beard prized taste above all things.

p(bio). Cookbook author Keri Fisher (One Cake, One Hundred Desserts) has written for Saveur, Gastronomica, and Cook's Illustrated. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and two sons.


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