Behind every great white chef is a small army of overlooked minorities that make his or her food a reality. This maxim applies even to James Beard—the pioneering voice of American food for whom the titular awards are named—who reveals in his various written works and interviews a profound connection to Chinese food and the people who make it.
Beard, who would admittedly balk at being called a "chef," a title he never sought, attributes much of his early childhood upbringing to Jue-Let, his mother Elizabeth's Canton-born business partner, and fondly recalls his Chinese godfather, who gifted him a pair of ivory chopsticks at a young age. So much was he influenced by Chinese culture and food early on that he confesses in his final interview—a series of tapes recorded by his friend Barbara Kafka and published posthumously in the James Beard Celebration Cookbook—"I don't think I've ever said this before, but, in my childhood and sometimes now, I wish I had been born Chinese. I was brought up by the Chinese." Much of this was Jue-Let's doing.
After Beard’s mother Elizabeth sold the family boarding house, the Gladstone, in Portland, Oregon, Let followed the family to their new home in the city. (Portland, we should note, houses one of America’s oldest Chinatowns.) Beard was born soon after, and it was Let’s Chinese cooking that Beard craved as comfort food when he was sick.
He had a particular affinity for noodles. “There’s something so satisfying about noodles and the fact that you very often have them with a strong chicken both that entices you,” Beard muses in the Kafka interview. “Noodles have a great place in my memory and I think of them as Chinese, not Italian.”
But who was Jue-Let? And how, for all the written history on James Beard's life, do we know so little about him? The answer lies partially in the fact that Let moved back to China when Beard was quite young. But John Birdsall, the author of a Lucky Peach story on the erased history of America's gay food luminaries, including Beard, suggests Let's anonymity is also indicative of the treatment of Asians in America during the early 20th century.
"It's not surprising that Let is a shadow, like Binh, the cook employed by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas," says Birdsall, referencing the protagonist from Monique Truong's novel The Book of Salt (the character is a composite of two real-life Vietnamese men whom Toklas remembered as Trac and Nguyen). He also points to a manual published in San Francisco's Chinatown in 1915 that teaches men arriving from Guangdong how to cook for American families.
“Presumably the lady of the house would point to roast beef or rice pudding, and the cook would be able to make something bland and usually starchy,” Birdsall explains. The book, which has recipes in Cantonese and English, also contains a characteristically racist phrase guide, including one that informs the new servant that his name is now “Charlie.” With this as the status quo of the day, Birdsall suggests it’s no surprise that even young Beard, “who loved Let and grew up in a home filled with Chinese antiques and chinoiserie, knew Let only as a cipher with amazing cooking chops.”
But when Beard spoke of Let, he did so with emotional depth, shining light on the man's feisty personality while revealing how he stood in as a father figure for a lonely child whose real father was known to disappear at random. In his memoir, Delights & Prejudices, Beard recalls Let's unique ability to stand his ground against his mother:
In short, Let was anything but the submissive, servile Asian male figure popularized through American media.
Kathleen Squires, co-producer of the new documentary James Beard: America's First Foodie, says of all the things she left on the cutting room floor in the making of the film, Jue-Let's lasting impression on Beard was one she wish she'd been given more time to discuss, revealing that Let's prowess as a chef extended far beyond just Chinese cuisine.
"Let was not only an accomplished Chinese cook," she says. "He was known for vol-au-vent with oysters; terrapin stew; chicken and crab salad; welsh rabbit; braised lamb curry; veal in aspic—the list goes on. He was also apparently a master bread baker, and certainly his influence pervaded Beard's bestselling cookbook, Beard on Bread.
In the making of the film, Squires interviewed many of Beard's personal friends, who related that Beard would speak fondly of Let as the father figure who spoiled him, spent time with him, and taught him how to shop well at the market. One of Squires' favorite tidbits recounts the way Let, who had really taken to aspects of American culture like Christmas—you can even make his Christmas cookies!—would spend far too much money lavishing gifts on the family during the holidays.
Later in his life, Beard was known to wear embroidered Chinese jackets, and keep his own collection of Chinese trinkets and decor, perhaps as a nod to Let. He writes in Delights and Prejudices: "To this day, I feel the force of Let's personality, remembering how quietly he instructed my mother, never losing his integrity and strength in the face of her powerful personality. How I wish I had him around still!"
And if Let were still around, perhaps he'd be pleased to see how far Chinese cuisine, and the people whom make it, has come. Last year, the nebulous Michelin food guide organization announced its first edition in China. This year's James Beard Awards were one of most diverse. But there are still plenty of wrongs to right, and that starts with recognizing people like Jue-Let: the ones making all this possible.