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American Food Personalities

food-and-drink.jpgLast week we asked you to comment on the quintessential culinary icon that never lived. This week, Andrew Smith, editor of The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink , has identified real American Culinary Icons. Who do you think is number 1? Julia Child, James Beard, Emeril Lagasse, Alice Waters or someone we didn’t mention? Be sure to let us know in the comments what you think! Check back on Thursdays throughout May for more great posts by Andrew Smith who teaches culinary history and professional food writing at The New School University, serves as Chair of the Culinary Trust and as a consultant to several food television productions.

A. Julia Child

Born in 1912 Julia McWilliams graduated from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. In 1934 she met her husband, Paul Child. The Childs moved to Paris and Julia enrolled in the Cordon Bleu cooking school. Her first cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was the product of her collaboration with two Frenchwomen, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. The best-selling cookbook was the first to popularize the principles of French cooking to a broad-based American audience. Child achieved her greatest influence through television. Although it was initially broadcast on a Boston public television station, The French Chef quickly became a national sensation, watched by men and women, noncooks and cooks, and won the first of its five Emmy Awards in 1965, a landmark event for educational television. Its popularity was due in part to Child’s sense of humor and the mistakes she handled with aplomb. Statuesque, with an unmistakable warbling voice, her manner and gaffes were frequently exaggerated and widely parodied. The French Chef, which aired from 1963 to 1973, created the celebrity called “Julia” and institutionalized the televised cooking show.

She was also instrumental in the development of the American Institute of Wine and Food and the International Association of Culinary Professionals. She became a mentor to many chefs and was a role model for women in the field. She died in 2004, but in recognition of her role in American social history, the Smithsonian Institution acquired her original kitchen with nearly all of its contents, including the pegboard wall of pans and the Garland stove, and reinstalled it in the National Museum of American History in 2002 and Johnson and Wales Museum and Archives installed her kitchen from her Cambridge home in 2007.

B. James Beard

Born in 1903. James Beard is often referred to as the father of American gastronomy. Through cookbooks, a cooking school, personal appearances, and groundbreaking television programs, Beard popularized the art of home cooking in general and American cooking in particular. Beard lived abroad for several years, studying voice and acting. Beard returned to the United States in 1927, intent on a theatrical career. To supplement his earnings, he began a catering business and with friends in 1937 opened a small shop called Hors d’Oeuvre Inc. Throughout his career, Beard contributed articles and columns to many magazines and he wrote twenty-seven cookbooks, many of which were best-sellers. Beard made television history in 1946 when he hosted television’s first cooking show, NBC’s Elsie Presents James Beard in “I Love to Eat.” Beard’s national exposure led to commercial endorsements for Birds Eye, Green Giant, and Planters. Beard advised the food service giant Restaurant Associates for many years beginning in 1954, when it opened innovative themed restaurants. In New York in 1955 the James Beard Cooking School opened in Beard’s home in Greenwich Village. Beard taught cooking for the rest of his life. When he died at age eighty-two on January 21, 1985, James Beard left a legacy of American culinary authenticity to home cooks and professional chefs.

C. Emeril Lagasse

Born in 1959. Emeril is a popular television chef and a star of the Food Network since 1993. Noted for his theatrical cooking style and audience rapport, he has hosted several cooking series and made regular appearances on network television. Emeril Live!, with its live audience and studio band, has the elements of a late-night entertainment program. In many ways Lagasse is the embodiment of the age in which chefs have become as famous as rock stars. His catch phrases—“Bam!” and “Kick it up a notch”—are as familiar to many Americans.

Of Portuguese and French Canadian descent, Lagasse was born in Fall River, Massachusetts. He began his culinary arts education at a vocational high school and completed it at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1978. After training in restaurants in France and the northeast United States, Lagasse settled in New Orleans and became the executive chef of Commander’s Palace. There he adopted Creole cooking, which became the basis for the menu at his own successful restaurant, Emeril’s, opened in 1990. His infusion of Portuguese and Vietnamese influences into Creole and Cajun cooking was a style he defined in his first cookbook as Emeril’s New New Orleans Cooking (1993). He has established restaurants in New Orleans, Las Vegas, Orlando, and Atlanta and published numerous cookbooks.

Lagasse was the first professional chef to star in a television sitcom. His overwhelming popularity has resulted in a stream of enterprises and commercial partnerships, including signature lines of cookware and knives, sauces, salad dressings, and wines.

D. Alice Waters

Born in 1944. Alice Waters visited France as part of her university studies. She was so taken with the country, and particularly with its food. Upon her return to Berkeley, California, in the fall of 1965, Waters began to experiment with cooking in the French fashion in her home, serving meals to her friends engaged in the Free Speech Movement and those protesting the Vietnam War. Waters opened a small restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley in 1971. The menu, which in the French tradition was changed every day, was based on the cuisine of Provence. Observing that she simply could not make the dishes taste like they did in France, Waters concluded that she should focus on northern California’s own local, seasonal produce, seafood and local wines. She headed out to nearby farmers’ markets and farms in search of the best produce, artisanal cheeses, and organic meats. She encouraged local farmers to grow fresh herbs and heirloom vegetables, and a network of organic farmers and ranchers grew up around the San Francisco Bay area. The restaurant served a number of dishes that came to be identified with “California cuisine,” like grilled fish and vegetables, green salads topped with grilled meat or warm goat cheese, and grilled pizza with nontraditional toppings. In 1972, Waters’s hired a then-unknown chef named Jeremiah Tower; she later hired Paul Bertolli, Lindsey Shere, Mark Miller, and others who would help revolutionize the American palate. James Beard, who first dined at the restaurant in 1973, reported that the fare was not nouvelle cuisine, but “Alice Waters cuisine.” In 1996, she created the Chez Panisse Foundation to help fund programs such as the Edible Schoolyard, which allows school children to experience the rewards of planting, harvesting, cooking, and eating their own vegetables. Alice Waters has authored or co-authored eight cookbooks, from The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook (1982) to Chez Panisse Fruit (2002).

Recent Comments

  1. Pamela Benjamin

    What about Ra-Ray?

  2. Matt

    Rachel Ray is all over the place these days!

  3. Pamela Benjamin

    Matt’s right, she should really be on there.

    I love EVOO on my sammies!!

  4. Andy Smith

    I like Rachel Ray, but is she an icon? If so, for what?

    And if she is a culinary icon, should she be rated with Julia Child or Alice Waters?

Comments are closed.