Picks and Pans Review: Epicurean Delight: the Life and Times of James Beard

updated 12/17/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/17/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Evan Jones

In the mid-'60s, when Americans began tossing out their casseroles in favor of cassoulets and dumping chocolate pudding for mousse au chocolat, the man who started it all got tired of it all. "The word 'gourmet' has been run into the ground," James Beard once grumbled. In its place, he suggested the use of the word "epicure," because "he's a man who likes food. A gourmet is one who likes talking about food."

There's not much question that Beard, who died at 81 in 1985, liked food. Six-foot-three, 250 lbs., with a jelly-bowl belly that once inspired a magazine to pose him as Santa on its cover, Beard was a champion of both European techniques and previously neglected American cuisine. As teacher, author and consultant, his sense of fun was contagious.

In a style that is at once elegant and nostalgic, Evan Jones vividly relates the Beard drama, tracing his rise from a somewhat Gothic childhood on the Oregon coast, where he clung to the kitchen of his innkeeping mother (at age 42, the willful Elizabeth Beard gave birth to her one-and-only, 14-lb. baby). The future chef first journeyed to New York City with a view to pursuing a theatrical career. Though nothing to build a career around, the experience served him well. "To entertain successfully," Beard once declared, "one must create with the imagination of a playwright, plan with the skill of a director and perform with the instincts of an actor."

As a gastronomic journey, Epicurean Delight is more than satisfying, taking the reader through cool cocktail encounters with Craig Claiborne (who thought Beard took credit for his work), dinner with Julia Child and a picnic with Alice B. Toklas. Sandwiched between chapters are some of the best of Beard's recipes.

The biography falters when it comes to providing a clear sense of what the man's private life was like. A homosexual who liked women—and who liked to project a heterosexual image—Beard's domestic arrangements were clearly complicated. Jones, while dropping names, does little to sort out the personalities. There are also times—as when Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe pop up at a party—when the author departs too early for the sake of the reader's curiosity.

Still, with its rich details of taste and place, Jones's biography is warmly rewarding, perfect for a long winter's night. (Knopf, $24.95)

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