Kathleen Squires

‘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

By ANGELA ALLEN

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.

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