Friday, October 25, 2019

James Beard


I'm writing about James Beard, because he was a wonderful writer who deserves to be known by all who love good food and good writing.  

I'm worried that too few people know who he was, except as the name affixed to a coveted award.  He was a giant, figuratively and literally. He was born in 1903 and died in 1985. 

He wrote over thirty cookbooks, and I have had a few through the years, but the one I've had for forty years and always return to with delight is James Beard's American Cookery.  Some of it is datedhe has over thirty entries for "Candy," for example.  But most of it isn't, and, more important, none of the writing is.  I have yet to find a writer who knows more about American food and its history than James Beard.  Each recipe is preceded by intriguing, highly informative prose about the dish and its background, often with a personal note.  Beard draws on an enormous store of cookbooks and writers, many I'd never heard of.  He seems sometimes to have one footmaybe twoplanted firmly in the early twentieth centurysay, 1918.  I feel, sometimes, as if I'm sitting around a boarding house table with him, the table groaning with fresh stews, vegetables, breads, puddings and pies.  That would make perfect sense.  His mother ran a boarding house in Portland, Oregon.  

He didn't have to learn about farm-to-table, because that's where he came from.  He only ate the freshest ingredients when he was a boy growing up in Oregon, and that's what he espoused from experience and taste.  His family took summer trips to the Oregon coast, and that's where he learned about seafood.  All of it fresh, of course.

I saw him once.  In Greenwich Village, where he lived.  He lived on West 12th Street, and so did I.  I'm surprised I didn't see him more often, but one day, I did.  It was in a little Italian Restaurant on Hudson Street, near Abingdon Square.


I must have been engrossed in my mealit was a great little place, cheap with delicious foodbecause I didn't notice him when I walked in.  At one point, I looked up and I saw him from behind, that enormous bald head and equally large frame.  You know how you can identify certain people from behind?  I knew it was James Beard.  Of course, I also knew he lived in the neighborhood, so it made sense.  This would have been about 1980, so he would have been in his early eighties.  I was so pleased with myself for having seen him, as if I'd planned it.  I only remember hearing one thing he said, in a soft voice,

"Everyone knows I'm a pussycat."

Lion, I'd say.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

The Truth of Fashion

Two years ago, Azzedine Alaïa died.

I wouldn't be surprised if you didn't know who he was.  Unless you are familiar with the world of fashion, there's no reason you should know his name.  He was a designer of women's clothes in the tradition of Dior, Yves St. Laurent, Givenchy, Armani.

He made dresses. Spectacular dresses.  But dresses nonetheless.

Great designers, those who work in Paris or Milan, will have two distinct lines of clothing.  They make one-of-a-kind dresses that cost extraordinary sums of money.  And they make a line of clothing that is ready-to-wear.  In French, it sounds classier,  prêt-à-porter.  Means the same thing.

In ready-to-wear, you do not get a dress that's unique, but the clothing can still be very expensive.  A typical price for a ready-to-wear dress by Azzedine Alaïa is around $3000. The one below, a lot more.

  Azzedine Alaïa and model

It's very easy to dismiss the world of fashion, especially when it reaches upper heights of richdom.  Especially at $3000 a pop.  Cue the yearly income of a farmer in Bolivia, which is perhaps half that, probably far less.

But I've always loved fashion, especially high fashion.  I've loved looking at the work of Christian Dior, for example.  I'm transfixed by his designs.  And, more recently, by the work of Emanuel Ungaro.  

How can I justify paying more than 20 seconds attention to a business that caters to the rich and the vain?  I dress in LL Bean and J. Crew on sale, quite happily.  It seems so frivolous.

I justify it because of beauty.  No, not the beauty of the women who wear the dresses.  The beauty of the dresses themselves.  The intricacy of the work, the immaculate detail of it, the creative use of fabric and hue. Dior was a superb craftsman, designer, artist.

Christian Dior, left, and right, with model

There is probably something in your life that you lust for that is very expensive.  Lust for--maybe admire, even worship in a way.  Is it a Lamborghini?  Is it a room at the Ritz in Paris?  Is it Beluga Caviar?  You'll never purchases these things, but you would if you could.  Wouldn't you?

If I'm being honest, the few women I've met who can afford these dresses haven't been very interesting.  I generally have found most very wealthy people to be boring.  (Expect blowback, but who cares?)

I separate the garment and the craftsmanship, the artistry, from the people who wear it.  All you need to do is thumb through the pages of any good book on Dior designs, and if you like beauty, you'll like at least some of his dresses very much. And, yes, I'm with Keats.  Beauty is truth.  Lies are ugly.  And beauty never lies.

It's no coincidence that one of the top ten most-visited exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was the 2011 exhibition of the work of the British designer, Alexander McQueen.  I was in Denver over Christmas, and the exhibit, Dior: From Paris to the World, was a smash at the Denver Museum.

So, RIP, Azzedine Alaïa and fellow creators of beauty.  We can never have enough of that, in whatever form.