James Andrews Beard was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1903 to Elizabeth and John Beard. His mother operated the Gladstone Hotel, and his father worked at the city's customs house. The family vacationed on the Pacific coast in Gearhart, Oregon, where Beard was exposed to Pacific Northwest cuisine.
Common ingredients of this cuisine are salmon, shellfish and other fresh seafood; game meats such as moose, elk, or venison; mushrooms, berries, small fruits, potatoes, kale and wild plants such as fiddleheads or young pushki (Heracleum maximum, or cow parsnip).
Beard's earliest memory of food was at the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition, when he was two years old. In his memoir he recalled:
I was taken to the exposition two or three times. The thing that remained in my mind above all othersI think it marked my lifewas watching Triscuits and shredded wheat biscuits being made. Isn't that crazy? At two years old that memory was made. It intrigued the hell out of me.
At age three Beard was bedridden with malaria, and the illness gave him time to focus on the food prepared by his mother and their Chinese helper; this helped prepare him for life at the forefront of culinary American chic. According to Beard he was raised by Thema and Jue-Let, who instilled in him a passion for Chinese culture. Beard reportedly "attributes much of his upbringing to Jue-Let," whom he refers to as his Chinese godfather.
David Kamp wrote, "In 1940 he realized that part of his mission [as a food connoisseur] was to defend the pleasure of real cooking and fresh ingredients against the assault of the Jell-O-mold people and the domestic scientists." Beard lived in France during the 1920s, where he experienced French cuisine at its bistros. After this exposure and the widespread influence of French food culture, he became a Francophile.
Beard briefly attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Although he was expelled for homosexuality in 1922, the college granted Beard an honorary degree in 1976. In 1923 he joined a theatrical troupe and studied voice and theater abroad until 1927, when he returned to the United States.
After training as a singer and actor, Beard moved to New York City in 1937. Unlucky in the theater, he and friend Bill Rhodes capitalized on the cocktail party craze by opening Hors d'Oeuvre, Inc., a catering company. This led to lecturing, teaching, writing and the publication of Beard's first cookbook in 1940: Hors D'Oeuvre and Canaps, a compilation of his catering recipes. According to fellow cooking enthusiast Julia Child, this book put him on the culinary map. World War II rationing ended Beard's catering business. From August 1946 to May 1947, he hosted I Love to Eat, a live television cooking show on NBC, beginning his ascent as an American food authority. According to Child, "Through the years he gradually became not only the leading culinary figure in the country, but 'The Dean of American Cuisine'."
In 1952, when Helen Evans Brown published her Helen Brown's West Coast Cook Book, Beard wrote her a letter igniting a friendship that spanned until Brown's death. The two, along with her husband Phillip, developed a friendship which was both professional and personal. Beard and Brown became like siblings, admonishing and encouraging each other, as well as collaborating. According to the James Beard Foundation website, "In 1955, he established The James Beard Cooking School. He continued to teach cooking to men and women for the next thirty years, both at his own schools (in New York City and Seaside, Oregon), and around the country at women's clubs, other cooking schools, and civic groups. He was a tireless traveler, bringing his message of good food, honestly prepared with fresh, wholesome, American ingredients, to a country just becoming aware of its own culinary heritage." Beard brought French cooking to the American middle and upper classes during the 1950s, appearing on TV as a cooking personality. David Kamp (who discusses Beard at length in his book, The United States of Arugula) noted that Beard's was the first cooking show on TV. He compares Dione Lucas' cooking show and school with Beard's, noting that their prominence during the 1950s marked the emergence of a sophisticated, New York-based, nationally and internationally known food culture. Kamp wrote, "It was in this decade [the 1950s] that Beard made his name as James Beard, the brand name, the face and belly of American gastronomy." He noted that Beard met Alice B. Toklas on a trip to Paris, indicative of the network of fellow food celebrities who would follow him during his life and carry on his legacy after his death.
Beard made endorsement deals to promote products that he might not have otherwise used or suggested in his own cuisine, including Omaha Steaks, French's Mustard, Green Giant Corn Niblets, Old Crow bourbon, Planters Peanuts, Shasta soft drinks, DuPont chemicals, and Adolph's Meat Tenderizer. According to Kamp, Beard later felt himself a "gastronomic whore" for doing so. Although he felt that mass-produced food that was neither fresh, local nor seasonal was a betrayal of his gastronomic beliefs, he needed the money for his cooking schools. According to Thomas McNamee, "Beard, a man of stupendous appetitesfor food, sex, money, you name itstunned his subtler colleagues." In 1981 Beard and friend Gael Greene founded Citymeals-on-Wheels, which continues to help feed the homebound elderly in New York City.