Beard's favorite dishes are not precisely companionable with 21st Century thinking on what to eat. He was a blood sausage, fondue, and pâté man at heart. But more importantly for his devotees, he took cooking from its most elemental notions and, through clear and simple processes, built upon this essential knowledge so that we can still all benefit from his inestimable culinary skills as we create modern dishes.
This particular book is a compendium of articles written by Beard, each entry containing the details of two or three theme recipes. All these recipes are complete and easy to follow. The other half of each article encapsulates the ambiance of each dish, the event, or both.
James Beard was no Shakespeare... thankfully. His writing is robust, clear, and to the point. Obviously, the text here is conveyed in the elemental literary style of the newspaper journalist, more of a promotional how-to approach of writing and very appropriate to the purpose of the work.
I'm reviewing the Knopf/Borzoi 1974, 316-page (not including the index) hardcover edition which features a dust jacket portrait of Beard rendered by Antoinette Schulte. The book illustrations (at the outset of the chapters) were drawn by Bill Greer and Beard was additionally assisted in the text of this book by José Wilson.
Beard characterizes these dishes as "American cooking." I don't really think that this is so -- I would call it (for the most part) European cooking employing American techniques or at the least, Euro-American fusion cooking. If you understand Beard's background, you can garner a more comprehensive sense of where he comes from in the world of cooking.
Beard was an inventor and he often substituted for traditional ingredients and improvised necessary devices in the face of cooking adversity. As a youth he helped his mother cook spring shellfish at what was then the wilds of an Oregon beach on the Pacific. So he developed many of his own techniques, many of them outdoors, prior to actually encountering established professional cookery in restaurants and so many of his methods make infinite sense. It's also relevant to know that Beard was the feature chef of the very first American television cooking program.
The following semi-biographical Beard cookbook (and not all that well-known) makes a nice companion work to the book under review: James Beard's Outdoor Cooking. As a huge fan of the old Master Chef, my paperback copy of The James Beard Cookbook is now contained within a plastic zip-lock bag because it's falling to pieces from extended use. For a more philosophical biography of Beard (along with a number of great recipes) acquire a copy of The Armchair James Beard which was edited by John Ferrone. And finally, you can also visit (or join) The James Beard Foundation online to learn more about the man and his inventive culinary techniques.
If Beard's recipes are not all timely in character, they are certainly easy and they represent the sorts of dishes which will quickly build one's cooking skills. I am compelled to say that most of his desserts are very nostalgic and still quite appropriate (in addition to being delicious) for today's family and entertaining tables.
If learning to cook from scratch is a priority for you, other incredible works to consider include The Way to Cook (or Julia's magnum opus, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1), or Jacques Pépin's Fast Food My Way which is also available in DVD video format. All three of these great chefs bring their own mastery to the kitchen and yet they astonishingly complement one other at the same time.
The chapter titles of the book under review are somewhat vague and would tell you little of their actual content so I'll just say that the work includes all manner of recipes for: meat; fish and other seafoods; pastries; desserts; breads; cheese and wine; picnic food, and; holiday dishes. Further, Beard discusses presentation and serving as well as kitchen gadgetry, the latter information naturally being somewhat dated.
Highly recommended for those who entertain at home, scratch cooks, and chefs.