Q: I really did enjoy everyone celebrating Julia Child's birthday. But, I do remember another chef that was on television before her, James Beard. I remember seeing his cooking shows and I guess there are no tapes or films that were saved, or maybe there were two in the Library of Congress. So, I was researching James Beard and how they made a museum out of his town house in Greenwich Village and guest chefs put on wonderful food events there. I came across some information that James Beard would do food ads on his show and that he was the original Jolly Green Giant. Is this true? I bought some fresh produce at Target today, Green Giant which was nicely packaged and it made me think of this question.
—Joanne Thompson Pease, Torrington, Conn.
A: James Beard was quite imposing visually, standing at 6-foot-3 and over 300 pounds at his peak. People thought of him in terms of "giant."
Betty Fussell, in her 1983 book, "Masters of American Cookery: The American Food Revolution & the Chefs Who Shaped It," quoted M.F.K. Fisher on Beard. "He's the giant of the food world —physically, mentally, spiritually —in every way," Fisher said.
Craig Claiborne, the one-time New York Times food editor, described Beard as "a giant panda, Santa Claus and the Jolly Green Giant rolled into one."
But, no, Beard was not the Jolly Green Giant. The Green Giant brand was introduced in 1925, according to its now-parent company, General Mills of Minneapolis. (Coincidently, the Minnesota Valley Canning Co., Green Giant's predecessor company, was founded in Le Sueur, Minn., in 1903 — the same year Beard was born in Portland, Ore.)
The Jolly Green Giant — one of the most recognizable figures in advertising history —first appeared in 1928. His famous "Ho, ho, ho" was recorded for a TV jingle in 1959 by a Chicago singer named Elmer "Len" Dresslar Jr., according to Dresslar's 2005 obituary in the Los Angeles Times.
You are right about Beard being on television before Julia Child. "The French Chef" debuted on public television nationally in 1963. Beard's television show, believed to be one of the earliest if not the first cooking show on television, aired in 1946 and 1947 on NBC. The show was sponsored by Borden, whose famous symbol was Elsie the Cow. As far as I know, only an audio clip from one of Beard's segments survives.
Yet, Beard was and remains one of the most recognizable figures in American cooking history. He was known —rather infamously in some circles —for plugging food products over his long career. The James Beard Foundation, rather cleverly I think, plays on that in offering a cold minted pea soup on its website (jamesbeard.org).
"Many people are surprised that this recipe calls for frozen peas, a convenience during the months when fresh peas are not available,'' the website reads. "It's not unusual, though, when you recall that James Beard was a spokesperson for the Jolly Green Giant brand."
Cold minted pea soup
Adapted from 1974's "Beard on Food" and posted on the James Beard Foundation Web site.
Makes: 8 servings
6 cups chicken stock
3 pounds freshly shelled peas or 3 packages frozen peas
1 small onion stuck with 2 cloves
1 clove garlic
1 teaspoon tarragon
Salt and pepper
3 cups heavy cream or plain yogurt
Finely chopped fresh mint
Put the chicken stock, peas, onion, garlic, tarragon in a saucepan. Cook until the peas are just tender. Remove and discard onion. Add salt and pepper to taste. Puree in a food mill, blender or food processor. Combine with cream or yogurt. Serve well-chilled with a generous sprinkling of mint.
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