May 5, 2010

The Fly

by Galway Kinnell

The fly
I've just brushed
off my face keeps buzzing
about me, flesh-
starved for the soul.

One day I may learn to suffer
his mizzling, sporadic stroll over eyelid or cheek,
even hear my own singing
in his burnt song.

The bee is the fleur-de-lys in the flesh.
She has a tuft of the sun on her back.
She brings sexual love to the narcissus flower.
She sings of fulfillment only
and stings and dies, and
everything she ever touches
is opening, opening.

And yet we say our last goodbye
to the fly last,
the flesh-fly last,
the absolute last,
the naked dirty reality of him last.

"The Fly" by Galway Kinnell, from Three Books. © Houghton Mifflin Co., 2002. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the man who said, "I believe that if ever I had to practice cannibalism, I might manage if there were enough tarragon around." That's food writer and advocate James Beard, (books by this author) born in Portland, Oregon (1903). He's called "the Father of American cooking," or as Julia Child said, "In the beginning, there was Beard." He was probably the first American food celebrity, at the forefront of writing and talking about food, of thinking about a unified American cuisine.

His father worked in the customs house in Portland, and he had made the journey from Iowa in a covered wagon. His mother ran a small hotel and loved food, a trait that she passed on to her son. They employed a Chinese cook, so young James ate a lot of Chinese food; he said later, "The Chinese have the perfect palate." When he was a toddler, he went to the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition, which was a lot like a World's Fair. He said: "The thing that remained in my mind above all others — I think it marked my life — was watching Triscuits and shredded wheat biscuits being made. Isn't that crazy? At two years old that memory was made. It intrigued the hell out of me." He went with his mother to shop at the farmers' markets in Portland, and his family spent summers on the Oregon coast, where they caught fish and found berries and cooked with whatever they could find or catch.

But even though James Beard loved food, he didn't consider it as a career. He wanted to go into music or theater. He went to Reed College briefly, but was kicked out for having an affair with one of his male professors. He went on to study voice in London and Paris, but ended up back in Oregon, with brief stints in Hollywood and New York, trying to find jobs in theater, film, or radio. But nothing panned out for long, and he went back to Oregon several times, and to pay the rent he sometimes taught cooking classes. He liked using the local food of Oregon, but he had also picked up tips from various European cuisines while he traveled, and he had a gift for incorporating other cuisines so that they still felt familiar.

He went back to New York to try to make it in the theater one last time, and in 1938 he met a brother and sister from Germany who loved food as much as he did, William and Irma Rhode. They talked about how much mediocre food New Yorkers ate to go with their cocktails, so they formed a catering service called Hors d'Oeuvre Inc. that would serve quality cocktail food. It was a success, and it catered an event for the International Food and Wine Society, whose secretary liked Beard so much that she got him a book deal with her publisher. In 1940, he published Hors d'Oeuvre & Canapés, the first cookbook all about cocktail food. He left the catering business and wrote a second cookbook, Cook It Outdoors (1941), drawing on his love of outdoor food from his summers on the Oregon coast.

In 1946, he launched the world's first cooking show, called I Love To Eat. He was a frequent contributor to magazines, and he served as the associate editor of Gourmet.But as he said, "I don't like gourmet cooking or 'this' cooking or 'that' cooking. I like good cooking."

And that's what made James Beard so popular. He believed in using local ingredients and in cooking from scratch. But he understood the appeal of quick meals, and he was not a gourmet snob, a counterculture health nut, or an advocate of one particular foreign cuisine. Instead, he believed in American food, but that American food could incorporate a lot of ideas from other countries, and that it could be really good.

James Beard's American Cookery has recipes for Sloppy Joes, "My Favorite Hamburger," Cheddar Cheese Ball, and Frankfurters in Sour Cream; but it also has recipes for Tempura Batter, Tuna Fish Dandelion Salad, Jerusalem Artichokes in Vinaigrette, and two separate recipes for Tongue and Eggs in Aspic.

Beard was a large man, 6'4". Julia Child said he had "a big belly and huge hands." And although he wrote in his books about the quintessential nuclear American family gathered around the table, Beard was gay, which he did not publicly discuss, even in his memoir.

In 1955, he started the James Beard Cooking School in Greenwich Village and Seaside, Oregon, and taught there until his death in 1985, at the age of 81.

When someone asked him what his philosophy was, he said: "Feel free and take a fresh look. My emphasis is on options. My motto: 'Why not?'"

He said: "I've long said that if I were about to be executed and were given a choice of my last meal, it would be bacon and eggs. Nothing is quite as intoxicating as the smell of bacon frying in the morning, save perhaps the smell of coffee brewing."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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