James Beard (1903–1985) was one of the major figures of the American culinary movement toward a “gourmet” sensibility, which began in the post-war years and exploded in the 1960s. He, along with influential and brilliant figures such as Judith Jones, Craig Claiborne, and Julia Child, changed the way Americans ate and the expectations they had about what they could eat.
While many of his contemporaries were turning to global cuisines for culture and creative inspiration, Beard remained an ardent champion for American food—nuanced and venerable in its own right. By 1972 when James Beard’s American Cookery was published, he was already a prominent figure in the food world, having published cookbooks for three decades, thus influencing the trajectory of the American cuisine he sought to define in this, his magnum opus.
With some 1500 recipes and chapters following standard designations—salads, soups, poultry, vegetables, etc.—a regional approach is not at the forefront. Some headnotes do help remedy the lack of context, but Beard’s priority lies with providing accessible material for home cooks across the country to take pride in and accept a national cuisine, pulled from all locales and eras.
Goulash, pea bean polenta, herring salad, braised pheasant with sauerkraut, smoked sausage with hominy, spoonbread, deviled scallops, and fried ham with red-eye gravy all intermingle on the pages, a fair representation of the wide-ranging interest of the American palate.