It is all too common to refer to devotees of Portland's local cuisine scene as "foodies", but many people may not be aware that James Beard was the original Portland foodie. Born in the Rose City in 1903, by mid-century Beard became a central figure in the establishment of a gourmet food culture in America. James Beard's name denotes high-quality and innovative efforts, and--with the seal of approval from the Beard Foundation--is provided to chefs, restaurants, or a piece of food-related writing. The annual Beard Foundation awards--referred to as the "Oscars of the food industry"--acknowledge innovative and rising stars in the culinary scene. (Recent winners from Oregon include Gabriel Rucker from Le Pigeon, Andy Ricker from Pok Pok and even the Original Pancake House.) There is no better way to honor the legacy of Beard's humble beginnings in Portland than to secure the naming rights for the planned James Beard Public Market at the western foot of the city's Morrison Bridge.
Without Beard's efforts to bring French cuisine to the American dinner table in the 1950s, the world might never have heard of Julia Child, whose "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" was published in the 1960s. Despite being contemporaries, in the following decades Child went on to international fame and recognition as the grand dame of American cuisine. However, Beard's 1946 appearance on NBC's "I Love to Eat" program predated Child's initial television debut by 16 years. "I Love to Eat" is also the name of a one-man stage play celebrating the life of James Beard, and next month Portland Center Stage will be showcasing the play's West Coast premiere. While there is no big-budget Hollywood adaption of the life and legacy of James Beard in the works (yet), "I Love to Eat" will have to make due for those of us in the Rose City interested in the story of Beard and his lasting influence on the local culinary scene.
East coast reviews of "I Love to Eat"--written by award-winning playwright James Still--use, perhaps not surprisingly, descriptive terms more associated with cooking: "zesty," "warmth and verve", "hearty good taste," even "undercooked" which might be more of a commentary on how the play packs Beard's life into a brief 75-minute running time. Some reviewers point out that the subjects that created an emotional melancholy for Beard--such as his professional competition with Child, or the longing for unattainable younger men due to his homosexuality--are skimmed over in exchange for focusing on Beard's celebratory appetite for the finer things of life. Beard always reminded his audience that "time in the kitchen should be fun," which many reviewers refer to in their summation of "I Love to Eat." Veteran stage and screen actor Rob Nagle. who is also an Eugene native, is tasked with bringing this celebrated bon viviant culinary icon to life on the PCS stage.
Tickets are available for the show's January 8-Feburary 3 run, but the evening performance on Friday, January 11th promises to be the penultimate celebration of the life and legacy of James Beard. After the play's performance, theater goers will be treated to a tasting which will feature local Beard Foundation Award winners, including Phillippe Boulot, Greg Higgins, Caprial Pence, Gabriel Rucker, and Corey Schreiber. This event promises to be a fun and flavorful celebration of Portland's culinary heritage, and tickets can only be purchased by visiting directly or calling the Portland Center Stage box office. (Tickets for the other performances of the show's run can be purchased over the PCS website.) All proceeds from the evening will benefit the planned James Beard Public Market.
Having long been on the drawing board, the James Beard Public Market will rival Seattle's Pike Place Market, serving as a centrally located market that will showcase the unmatched bounty provided by Willamette Valley farmers and Eastern Oregon ranchers. As James Beard began his love affair with food due to the wild berries and seafood he was introduced to on the Oregon cast as a young child, it is fitting that a market dedicated to his legacy would celebrate the artisan growers and producers throughout the state. A major step towards making this planned market a reality was reached this past summer when Multnomah County commissioners agreed to sell the county's "parking lot properties" at the western foot of the Morrison Bridge for a development that will include space for 100 stalls in a covered market. With the county's approval, the backers of the James Beard Market head into the capitalization stage, securing funds to cover the market's development costs. The benefit performance of "I Love to Eat" on January 11th will be one of many events to help raise funds for this project.
"This benefit performance of "I Love to Eat" is an example of the strong local alliances among the partners in the local food and arts worlds," writes Ron Paul, the consulting director of the James Beard Public Market, in an email. "New Seasons Market is a sponsor, and Portland Center Stage has been a great partner, as have the Beard Award-winning chefs. We have all bonded over the legacy that James Beard created."
If celebrating the life and legacy of Portland's original foodie sounds like a "zesty" way to spend an evening, then next month's West Coast premiere of "I Love to Eat" should certainly be placed on your calendar. And if you are interested in helping make the James Beard Public Market a reality, then consider attending the performance on January 11, for an evening of theatrical and gastronomic enjoyment!