Introduction to The Beard on Bread Challenge

Julia Child entered many lives when Julie and Julia hit theaters in 2009. It follows the true story of Julie Powell cooking all of Julia Child’s recipes in The Art of French Cooking in one year. Millennials and younger generations like myself were first introduced to Julia Child, one of the big TV chefs of 20th century America.

Many of us may have heard of the James Beard Awards and the James Beard Foundation. Even if you don’t know what it means, you may have come to understand that whoever wins a James Beard Award, be it for writing or cooking, is a big deal in food. But who is James Beard? Why did I talk about Julia Childs earlier?

Well, it all comes together. James Beard was a contemporary of Julia Childs, and he was one of, if not the first, celebrity chef who became known as the Dean of American Cookery, and for good reasons. 

Picture from Food Republic

In 1946, he had the first cooking show in America, I Love to Eat, and then was featured in other television and radio shows. He wrote well over 20 cookbooks and regularly contributed articles and columns to multiple magazines and newspapers. In 1955, he started his own culinary school, The James Beard Cooking School, as well as traveling around the country teaching at other schools and organizations. James also served as a consultant to multiple restaurants, food producers, and a mentor to generations of chefs, all the while running his own restaurant in Nantucket.

It’s no wonder that he became such a focal point in American food culture during his life. It did help that he was a larger than life personality coining memorable quotes like, “The only thing that will make a souffle fall is if it knows you’re afraid of it.”

Because of all of his work throughout the food communities of America, James Beard left a culinary impact that we still feel today. Through his travels, he reintroduced Americans to the roots of our cooking, elevating these staples to the culinary world. This was a big deal as it was during a time when serious cooking meant French Cooking, and American cooking was seen as of home cooking, not fine dining. We can see his influence in how now many American chefs celebrate the diverse and growing cooking traditions we have in America. James Beard was an advocate for cooking with local, seasonal produce starting the farm-to-table trend that has become so common in many dining establishments.

He was a man who was constantly pushing the envelope in the culinary world. I learned that before his death, he was working on a cookbook, The James Beard Cookbook on CuisineVu, to be published on a diskette. This was at a time when less than 15% of American households had a computer!

So, when did James Beard become an interest of mine? When I came home and tried to make sourdough unsuccessfully many times, my mom introduced me to her James Beard On Bread book. The original bread recipe book, and James Beard’s best selling book during this lifetime. Good Reads even places this book as one of the Best Breadmaking Books Ever.

The book was first published in 1973 at a time when Americans were increasingly interested in European styles of bread. James Beard’s book fueled a renaissance in breadmaking and became an ‘icon’ of the period, according to baker and cookbook author Peter Reinhart.  

I think the best part of this book is that James Beard developed the recipes for the everyday kitchen. He starts off the book by explaining the best flours for bread making, many of which you would likely need to order from a flour specialist. However, most of his recipes use easily accessible ingredients like all-purpose flour and instant dry yeast. He pairs these common ingredients with simple instructions empowering any family and individual with the tools to make a delicious loaf of bread.

Because as James Beard puts it:

“Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.”

Inspired by Julie and James Beard, I decided to embark on a bread challenge, to bake every recipe in James Beard’s Beard on Bread book. Because this book was published in 1973 with a few pictures, I’ll post pictures of my escapades to help you come along. Hopefully, you can see what a soft dough vs a tough dough looks like, for instance. Also, given that our tastes have probably changed since the 1970s, I’ll be providing you with tips and suggestions on how you easily vamp up his recipes.

It’s funny how bread is such a common staple, yet so many of us do not know how to make it. We’ve become disconnected from one of the original staple foods and survival techniques. Breadmaking and baking, which was an everyday activity, has become a hobby for many of us. It is a testament to our changing times and how food has become so accessible for so many of us. It’s incredible.

Yet, with the pandemic, making sourdough has become one of the big things to do. Now that many of us are at home, we have the time to reconnect with some of our food traditions. We’re reconnecting to our roots. Still, there is so much more bread out there besides sourdough and the basic sandwich bread in many American supermarkets. There are so many bread cultures, more than I can think of, and more than is covered in Beard on Bread. 

With this in mind, I embark on my journey through bread with Beard.

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