Tag Archives: James Beard

Why the parsley garnish?

parsleyNchicken

Nothing decorated more restaurant plates in the 20th century than parsley, most of it by all accounts uneaten.

Why use so much of what nobody wanted? The best answer I can come up with is that parsley sprigs were there to fill empty spaces on the plate and to add color to dull looking food.

Parsley was not the only garnish around, but it has probably been the most heavily used over time. It has shared the role of plate greenery with lettuce, especially after WWII when lettuce become readily available, and to a lesser extent with watercress.

Parsley has long been a favorite in butcher shops where it is tucked around steaks and roasts. As early as 1886 restaurants were advised to emulate butchers and decorate food in their show windows with “a big, red porterhouse steak, with an edge of snow-white fat, laid in the center of a wreath of green parsley.” By the early 20th century, almost the entire U.S. parsley crop, more than half of which was grown in Louisiana and New York, went to restaurants and butchers. By 1915 parsley sprigs were a ubiquitous restaurant garnish that many regarded as a nuisance. Diners sometimes suspected that the parsley on their plate had been recycled from a previous customer.

While European chefs use garnishes as edible complements to the main dish, Americans have focused primarily on their visual properties.

parsleyGuidetoConvenienceFoodscvrAround 1970 when convenience foods invaded restaurant kitchens, garnishes took on heightened significance in jazzing up lackluster, monochromatic frozen entrees. In the words of Convenience and Fast Food Handbook (1973),“The emergence of pre-prepared frozen entrees on a broad scale has revived the importance of garnishing and in addition, has led to innovative methods of food handling, preparation and plating. If an organization is to achieve sustained success in this field, emphasis must be placed on garnishing and plating. These are the two essentials that provide the customer with excitement and satisfaction.” [partial book cover shown above, 1969]

Excitement?

parsleyNOThe head of the Southern California Restaurant Association admitted in 1978 that he hated to see all the food used as garnishes go to waste in his restaurant, including “tons” of lettuce. But this was necessary for merchandising, he said: “We have to make food attractive. It’s part of the cost of putting an item on the table.” It was – and is – probably true that an ungarnished plate such as shown here looked unattractive to most Americans.

parsleyNfiletmignon

So many garnishes decorated food in American restaurants in the 1970s that food maestro James Beard got very grumpy about it, calling it stupid and gauche. He could allow watercress with lamb chops or raw onion rings on a salad, but put a strawberry in the center of his grapefruit half and he was outraged. Next to orange slices and twists, his most detested “tricky” garnishes were tomato roses and flowers. Funny that he didn’t mention radish roses such as the one shown above.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008, revised 2015

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Between courses: Beard at Lucky Pierre’s

3abetweencoursesIn the summer of 1953 James Beard was cook and manager at a casual hamburger and hotdog eatery on the island of Nantucket. It wasn’t your everyday hamburger joint. The hamburger rolls were made on the premises. And some highfalutin snacks, such as lobster soufflé, local sausage in puff pastry, and handmade chocolate rolls by Rudolph “the omelet king” Stanish, came out of the kitchen. Beard contributed Swiss onion tarts and salads with fresh picked corn.

ChezLuckyPierre1953Also unusual was the place’s name – the meaning of which will not be explained here. It was certain to raise a few eyebrows and may suggest why, according to a strangely puzzled Beard, “The natives resent the off-Islanders. We have had reports that we take dope and have sex orgies in the middle of Lucky Pierre’s all the time.” Evidently they got over their misgivings, though, because later he writes, “They are all finding out that they can bring the children … that we are specializing in respectability and good food.”

Beard viewed his summer at Lucky Pierre as an experiment. He believed the East Coast was ripe for a new type of specialty, gourmet hamburgers of the sort found in California. He considered opening his own restaurant specializing in such fare. “If it goes the way I think it will, we shall take our lives in our hands and start the same thing here in New York,” he wrote to his good friend and cookbook co-author Helen Brown. (Beard’s letters to Brown have been published in the book Love and Kisses and a Halo of Truffles.)

His dream of running a restaurant where “there is money to be made by the wheelbarrow load” did not materialize. Lucky Pierre was popular but it had a gravel floor which the Nantucket board of health declared unsanitary and this somehow led to its downfall.

luckypierre329The advertisement shown here appeared at just about the exact time JB was stepping off the ferry, in the June 22, 1953, edition of “This Week in Nantucket.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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Good eaters: James Beard

taits302James Beard enjoyed eating out – in fact much of his life revolved around restaurants. When he was a child his mother often took him to places such as the Royal Bakery in his hometown of Portland OR and Tait’s in San Francisco (pictured). Although he was an accomplished cook, cooking teacher, and author of over 20 cookbooks, like many a New Yorker he patronized restaurants frequently, including Maillard’s, Longchamps, and the Automat. At one point, when he had become more prosperous, he ate almost nightly for a solid month at one of his regular haunts, the Coach House near his home in Greenwich Village, where his favorite dishes included corn sticks, black bean soup, and mutton chops. One summer in 1953 he managed a restaurant on Nantucket.

youngjjamesbeardrevHe preferred restaurants that were “homey” and where he was known and liked, such as the Coach House and Quo Vadis. At the latter he became good friends with owners Bruno Caravaggi and Gino Robusti with whom he shared a love of opera. As a young man (pictured, age 19) he prepared for a musical career at London’s Royal Academy of Music. He said that his early performance training helped him with radio and TV appearances.

In 1956 he issued his list of the country’s best restaurants, revealing a fondness for clubby male establishments and for places that were friendly — though usually expensive: Le Pavillon, ‘21,’ Quo Vadis (NYC); Jack’s (SF); Locke-Ober (Boston, pictured); Perino’s, Musso & Frank (Los Angeles); London Chop House (Detroit); and Walker Bros. Pancake House (Portland).locke-ober

Restaurants also figured prominently in his professional life. He served as a consultant for restaurants in NY and Philadelphia, including the Four Seasons. For years he wrote a column on restaurants for the Los Angeles Times in which he touted places as diverse as Quo Vadis and Maxwell’s Plum in NYC and the Skyline Drive-In in Portland OR (“they make a whale of a good hamburger”). Despite occasional harsh opinions expressed about women in his 1950s barbecue cookbook days (“They should never be allowed to mix drinks.”), in later years he hailed Berkeley CA restaurateurs Alice Waters at Chez Panisse and Suzy Nelson, co-owner of The Fourth Street Grill.

He advised men on cooking and ways of suavely handling their culinary affairs, being careful, even when promoting French cuisine, to keep a down-to-earth tone. He disavowed the term gourmet, claiming he was definitely not one. In a review of Maxwell’s Plum he declared, “Not being a highbrow about food, I appreciate a really good hamburger or chili as much as a velvety quenelle or a rich pâté en croute.”

In a column he wrote for the National Brewing Company of Baltimore he urged discontented diners to stand up for good food, suggesting, “The only way to combat the stupid treatment of food in many restaurants is to be firm about sending food back to the kitchen whenever it is not right.” If asked how your dinner is, he insisted, do not say (if it was bad), “Oh very good, thank you.” In another piece he chided “mannerless” diners who make multiple reservations with the intention of deciding later which to honor. “When you dine out you have a certain responsibility to the management,” he wrote, explaining that no-shows seriously undermine small restaurants.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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