'Very impressed': Recalling James Beard's historic visit to Minneapolis
When cookware retailer Williams-Sonoma opened a store on Nicollet Mall in September 1979, the news was a topic in Taste for weeks.
It was the company’s sixth outpost — the first outside California and Texas — and Minneapolis was chosen because the region boasted a high concentration of mail-order customers.
The store, located inside Harold, an upscale women’s specialty retailer, was christened with a monthlong parade of appearances by food luminaries, including Paula Wolfert, Diana Kennedy, Judith Olney and Jeremiah Tower. The opening day’s main attraction was reserved for the dean of American cookbook authors, James Beard, then 76.
His rare Minneapolis visit was made under less-than-ideal circumstances. The famously well-connected Beard had been staying in the Provence, France, home of his friend Simone Beck — yes, Julia Child’s co-author of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” — when he slipped in the shower, limiting his mobility.
Further, when Minneapolis Star writer Jeremy Iggers arrived for an interview, Beard’s painfully swollen hand was wrapped in a hot compress, treatment after a long day of signing autographs at Williams-Sonoma.
Iggers, who described Beard as “a great bald mountain of a man,” asked the Falstaffian author of 16 cookbooks if he could recall the greatest number of autographs he’d ever logged in a day. Beard’s reply — 1,800 — was a measure of his Olympian-level fame.
The conversation turned to food trends, and Beard, a longtime proponent of uncomplicated American fare, gave a response that rings true 40 years later.
“I think that people are learning simplicity,” he said. “We went through a point where everything had to be surmounted by one or two sauces and meals had to be enormous. Now we’re coming to the place where people appreciate a simple meal, well-prepared and without too much richness. One of the great faults of restaurants in this country, especially of great restaurants is, for my tastes, they serve too much food.”
During his visit, Beard dined at one local restaurant, the groundbreaking New French Cafe, then in its third year, and declared himself “very impressed.” He was clearly taken with another Twin Cities institution-in-the-making.
“What’s the name of the market here?” he asked, before coming up with it on his own. “Byerly’s. I’m told that it’s probably the finest supermarket in America.”
He also noted that, despite the explosion of quick-service restaurants, home cooking wasn’t going anywhere.
“I don’t think people will ever give it up,” he said, citing the “absolute startling growth of cooking classes and the number of cookbooks that are out.”
Beard had famously written that his last supper, were he able to choose it, would be bacon and eggs. Iggers asked why.
“Well, it’s good, honest food,” said Beard, with a caveat. “If it’s good bacon and good eggs.”
After Beard’s death in 1985, a nonprofit organization dedicated to American culinary arts was created to honor his legacy, and the James Beard Foundation awards have become the food industry’s highest accolade.