‘James Beard: America’s First Foodie’ review: Oregon’s own culinary pioneer

PBS documentary airing Sunday chronicles the life of a Portland-born champion of farm-to-table cooking


Portland’s food royalty stepped out in full force May 5 when Northwest Film Center screened James Beard: America’s First Foodie at Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium.

James Beard

Several notable Portland chefs, restaurateurs, brewers, food press and enthusiastic cooks appeared in the movie — and in the audience. Post-film, moviegoers among the standing-room-only crowd were invited to nosh on Beard’s famous onion sandwiches (on white bread with homemade mayo) at the convivial reception. Bon vivant Beard (1903-1985) would have been proud of that event; he loved to bring people together, and fresh local food was his way to do it.

Hard to believe this film, which airs tonight, May 21, on PBS’s American Masters and is available for streaming on the PBS website, is the first full documentary about one of Portland’s favorite citizens. Born in Portland in 1903 to an independent mother who ran a boarding house with righteous attention to market-fresh meals, Beard grew into what one newspaper called “America’s grand poobah of food.” Before he dove thoroughly into the food world, he went to Reed College, where, commentators in the film claim, he was kicked out for having an affair with another man. (Update: as ArtsWatch reader Robin Tovey notes below, that claim may not hold up. Decades later in 1976, Reed gave him an honorary degree.) He tried his talents at theater, but eventually food stuck as his calling.

With 22 cookbooks, and before anyone else thought about seasonality and farm-to-plate food, Beard nailed it. With editor Judith Jones’s help, he introduced Julia Child to the American public and the Beard-Child relationship was full of fondness and some jealousy on Beard’s part. He was not the TV charmer that Child was.

Portland filmmaker Beth Federici and co-producer/food writer Kathleen Squires (both New Jersey-born and onetime college buddies) with editor Greg Snider worked four years to make the documentary. Beard died at 81 in 1985, so the footage of him looks old-fashioned, but the stills and interviews are so well put together that the film comes off as fresh.

Producers Kathleen Squires and Beth Federici.

The film is a running biography, moving along with the progress of years from Beard crawling among the onion bins as a baby and his mother shopping the Portland fresh-air markets. Mostly filled with stills, the addition of contemporary foodies and chefs cooking under the influence of their American master livens up the narrative. Director Federici said she returned to shoot the interviewees in action — there were too many commentators sitting in chairs. Some lively cartooning serves as transitional material; it’s cute, but it didn’t make the movie. I’d argue it took away from the sophistication.

The film includes interviews with top chefs (Wolfgang Puck, Daniel Bouloud, Larry Forgione and son Marc, Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower); serious cooks who took Beard’s cooking classes near his family home in Gearhart; esteemed cookbook editors like Judith Jones who ushered in Julia Child’s voluminous Mastering the Art of French Cooking to American cooks; and writers and restaurateurs, including the ever quotable Clark Wolf. Portland chefs Naomi Pomeroy (Beast), Greg Higgins (Higgins), Cathy Whims (Nostrana), all winners of or nominees for the James Beard Award (the Academy Award of the food world), appear in the 60-minute film, as well as Mother’s Bistro high-profile chef Lisa Schroeder. Even Martha Stewart showed up, claiming she still bakes Beard’s potato bread. Nobody had anything negative to say about Jim Beard except that he knew how to get a free meal at just about any restaurant in the world, coasting on his bigger-than-life reputation.

And his legacy, though the people closest to him said he hadn’t thought much about that, lives on: in the Beard Awards; at his former brownstone in Greenwich Village, now the James Beard House, where any chef worth his reputation begs to cook; and in the near future, at the year-round James Beard Market, to open — after two decades of negotiating and fund-raising — in 2020 near Portland’s Oregon Museum of Science & Industry.

Of all the honors and events named for him, Beard “would be most proud of the (future) market,” Federici said after the film. The Dean of American Cooking certainly would have shopped there, and nosed out the best spring morels among the purveyors’ bins.

The film will air on the PBS series American Masters at 7 p.m. May 21. Check your local listings.

Read a conversation with Director Beth Federici about James Beard and the film.

Angela Allen lives in Portland and wrote about food from 1990-2010. She never had the chance to interview James Beard, but she did talk with Julia Child several times. These days, she writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative and journalistic writing to Portland-area students. Her web site is angelaallenwrites.com.  

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4 Responses.

  1. Brenda Leppo says:

    Will there be another showing of the American Masters: James Beard Americas First Foodie?

    • As far as I know, it’s not scheduled for another Northwest Film Center showing, but you can now stream it here. You might want to eat first. Thanks for reading!

  2. Robin Tovey says:

    Nice piece on our first localvore! Please enjoy more about his time at Reed College (we found no evidence of expulsion due to bias): http://www.reed.edu/reed_magazine/sallyportal/posts/2017/James-Beard-documentary.html

    • Thanks, Robin, I hope ArtsWatch readers will check it out. I’ve added a note in the story above. This makes it easier to perhaps explain why Beard would have left so much of his estate to Reed. It didn’t really make sense if he’d harbored resentment all those years.

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