Dining With James Beard: Check, Please!

James Beard House, NYC

Beard House, New York, NY

I’m happy to report that I will be giving a talk about FOOD JOBS at the Beard House (PDF) on April 22 at 12 noon. I do hope you will think about joining me for lunch and the discussion.

The Beard House brings back so many happy memories and of James Beard himself. But I must share one little story about a lunch with Jim at the grand La Grenouille.

At the time, I was broke. I’d spent close to a million dollars getting The Great American Cooking Schools series of cookbooks ready for publication. The money just kept gushing into a bottomless pit. When the accountant examined the books he spoke to me as one does to the recently bereaved.

I then got it into my head that all my problems would be solved, and my credibility established if only I could persuade “Jim” to write an introduction for the front page of every title I was publishing.

I had his telephone number but lacked the courage to dial it. I’d get as far as dialing the first four or five digits then quickly hang up.  Then it occurred to me that his secretary would answer, and I could ask her to ask him if he would have lunch with me.

So I called. “’HELLO,” he answered. And right away he accepted. The next day, while bragging of my success to a friend, she told me he wouldn’t show up unless I sent a limo to pick him up. So I did. How much more broke can you be than broke, I wondered? I would find out.

I arrived at La Grenouille first. “The epitome of ‘everlasting elegance’ is the way it is still described in the Zagat Guide. “Midtown Classic French is top-of-the line all the way, catering to a glamour money crowd (real jewelry) dazzling flowers and one of New York’s premier places to impress.”

In sails James Beard, resplendent in a vibrant black and white hounds tooth zoot suit enveloping his colossal body. I’d bet he weighed closer to 400 than 300 pounds. He was outstandingly noticeable. He looked around. Saw me. Beamed!

When the waiter approached, “Double Glenlivet,” he boomed as he tucked the large white damask linen napkin over his bow tie. Elbows on the table, he was primed and ready to go.

“A glass of Tio Pepe,” I murmured. I always order dry sherry when I find myself in elegant surroundings. Besides I knew exactly how much even a single Glenlivet cost and the knowledge filled me with a dreadful premonition of things yet to come.

“Cheers, m’dear,” he smiled as he knocked it back. “Cheers, Mr. Beard,” I whispered.

When the waiter reappeared with the leather-covered, red-tasseled menus, Mr. Beard waived him away with a tap to the rim of his glass with his stubby finger and another — double — quickly appeared. And quickly disappeared. He raised his eyebrow at me questioningly, tapping his glass again. “No more for me,” I hastened.

He accepted the wine list as he studied the menu. Venison it was to be —— with, let’s see, a ’54 Hermitage.  He leaned back.  The hind legs of his chair barked such an alarming warning that he hastily heeded and resumed an upright position.

Pity. I had momentarily rather hoped he might fall and hit his head. And die. And I wouldn’t then be responsible for the fast mounting bill.

The venerable bottle was presented with a low bow and decanted with reverential deference. Glasses large as hurricane lamps and thin as a sheet of ice were placed on the table. He swirled and sniffed and rolled the wine around in his mouth, puffing out his cheeks like Louis Armstrong at full throttle. His eyes rolled heavenward. He allowed the wine to trickle down his gullet. He declared it reminiscent of cloves and cinnamon and black truffles and its’ aged wonderfully, gracefully… “Yeah, right!,” thought I.

The word “expansive” failed to adequately describe his mood.  Boy was he happy. I have no memory of the conversation because I was too deeply preoccupied with a sighting of the clutch of waiters gathered together in the rear of the restaurant. I could well imagine they were licking their chops in anticipation of the gigantic tip that they could reasonably anticipate would soon be warming their pants pockets.

I had no appetite and barely managed to swallow a morsel of my cold  poached salmon. Fear was tightening its grip around my throat. Galloping panic increased my heartbeat. I was feeling sick. Horribly sick. What if I threw up?

What could I do?  It wasn’t a question of “if” there would be sufficient funds to cover the check that had already vastly exceeded my worst-case calculations. I had not a shred of doubt that my sorely-depleted credit card would be declined. And returned to me…

Would the news be conveyed in front of him or would I be discretely called away and confronted with the horrible truth? Was there a window in the ladies room from which I could dive onto the street and make a run for it? Could I fling back my chair and make a dash for the door?  Would he follow me? Did he know where I lived? Could I be arrested?

“Ah, splendid,” he beamed. He wasn’t speaking to me. It was the waiter arriving with the Grand Marnier soufflé.  Then, “Yes. Bring me an Armagnac,” he purred.  “And for you, my dear,” he inquired solicitously. With no small amount of irritation I’d noticed how he’d taken charge of things.

Those were the days when women rarely took men out for lunch, but if they did, the wine list was always handed to the gentleman, who also did the ordering for you because you were too frail to be expected to speak to the waiter yourself. “You go ahead,” I said, summoning a sneer of sarcasm that he appeared not to notice. “Make it two Armagnacs,” he said, addressing the waiting waiter.

An elegant gentleman in a dark suit appeared at his side. It was the restaurant owner, carrying  two enormous snifters of Armagnac on a sliver tray. “Ahem,” he said with a little attention-getting cough. “Mr. Beard,” he said, “We are so honored to have you and your lovely companion with us today. May I invite you to be our guests for lunch?”

Suddenly I grasped the idea that the estimable, revered, magnificent, generous  Mr. Beard had surely anticipated this remarkable turn of events. “Cheers, Jim,” I exulted, to  my beloved friend.

I could barely restrain myself from planting a kiss on his dear shiny intelligent forehead. Instead I snatched up my glass of Armagnac and scarfed down all the petits fours in a fine rendition of “Lucy” in the chocolate factory.

Lucy & Ethel in the chocolate factory, Courtesy of

Lucy & Ethel in the chocolate factory (Photo Courtesy of CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

“Sure” I grinned as I held out my glass for a refill…

Just then I remembered the purpose of the lunch. I asked my new pal Jim if he would write the introduction to the books?

He put his plump hand over mine.  And said with a smile. “No m’dear. I don’t do introductions.”