Remembering James Beard – and welcoming JBFoundation awards to Chicago this year!

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English: A cranberry jello salad made in a rin...
English: A cranberry jello salad made in a ring mold. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I first heard about James Beard back in the 70s when I was just beginning to feel like a serious cook. I spent a lot of time reading cookbooks and a significant amount of time making recipes that sounded delectable—and doable without too many single-purpose pieces of equipment or exotic ingredients. He was one of my original inspirations—as he was to the entire nation of U.S. cooks back then who’d been raised on Jello salads and heavily mayonnaised vegetable and/or fruit combinations. The man even inspired my ultimate hero, Julia Child.

Then I had a chance to see the guy in person. He was a huge man—I think something near 300 pounds. But then, Beard was born a huge baby—some say 13 or 14 pounds, so he came by it honestly as well as by indulging his passions for food. The day I saw him he was making – I will never forget it – a Swiss Cheese Salad. As if cheese isn’t salty and fatty enough, I thought, he’s going to put dressing on it! I think there were some chopped green onions and a few other things in there and some Dijon mustard in the dressing, but I don’t recall any greens in the ingredients. Yes, it was a salad made almost exclusively of shredded cheese—top quality, of course. Gruyere, no doubt. Take out the greens and this is somewhat like the recipe as I remember it.

I was impressed by his flavor-is-everything-and-devil-take-the-consequences attitude towards fat in recipes—this at a time when fat was just beginning to be vilified as the culprit in America’s obesity epidemic. Nowadays, fat versus sugar is the debate that continues to spark hot contests.

Chef Beard was also the guy who gave me my forever-remembered proportions for homemade vinaigrette—one and a half tablespoons of wine vinegar to six tablespoons of olive oil. The memory of seeing him that day is still precious. I can’t imagine how thrilled I’d have been to see Julia Child in person. But at least I got—and still get—to admire her from afar via her many television appearances.

And now I’m thrilled for another reason. I’m proud that the James Beard Foundation, founded to honor that amazing guy, is holding its prestigious JBF 2015 awards ceremony for the first time in Chicago!! Monday, May 4 at Lyric Opera, both the Chicago and the national winners will be celebrated at a grand party.

Read more and find insights on food at the James Beard Foundation’s blog Delights & Prejudices.

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