The purist tradition is reactive. It’s a slightly highbrow, civilizing response to the enthusiasm American cooks, ably assisted by Madison Avenue, developed for factory-processed foods by the mid-twentieth century. Before canned vegetables and canned soup, cake mix and pudding mix and Cool Whip came to define normal, down-to-earth food style for virtually all Americans, cooking with fresh, high-quality ingredients was a commonsense preference, not a school of thought.
The production capacity to support a robust manufactured-food industry was in place by the end of World War Two, and demand was stoked by the pressure to step it up in the kitchen that was bearing down on the American housewife from all sides. Many brides were very young (mean age at first marriage through the 1950s: about 20), with little kitchen experience, even as a appreciation for the taste and status value of sophisticated, European-style food was expanding the repertoire expected of the upwardly-mobile middle-class cook. And the heavily-promoted feminine mystique of the postwar era included cooking—creative, elegant cooking, even—as a quintessential aspect of gender identity and social adjustment, requiring just a bit of training to blossom.
Or you could skip the training, and just open a can of cream of mushroom soup. Convenience cookery probably helped more cooks than it hurt, and if their boeuf bourguignon à la Campbell was inauthentic, at least they were able to respond adequately to the multiple demands placed on the more upwardly mobile among them. Busy women, and, of course, women who didn’t care about cooking appreciated the shortcuts provided by manufactured foods, too, and found that they tasted fine.
Beginning with the work of Elizabeth David and Sheila Hibben and M.F.K Fisher, and bursting into full bloom as the center of a very popular movement in the early 1960s, the purists explicitly valued simplicity, technique, and appreciation for fresh, high-quality ingredients. Like the cuisine of the counterculture (another anti-industrialist voice) a decade or so later, the purist tradition is characterized by reverence for traditional foodways that would persist into today’s taste for all things artisanal.
By the early 1960s, a sort of holy trinity emerged to give shape to the classical purist sensibility. In Cambridge, there was Julia Child, who carried the banner for the Francophile traditionalists; in New York, the purist elite was capped by Craig Claiborne, whose mega-bestselling New York Times Cookbook walked millions of home cooks through the intricacies of upscale entertaining, and James Beard, a food genius whose virtuosity with traditional American cooking ran a little counter to the internationalism of the jet-age epicure, but presaged the California cuisine of the 1970s as well as neotraditionalist comfort food of the 1980s.
David Kamp, in The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation, notes that the trio whose approach helped define so many insiders were themselves outsiders, unconventional square pegs whose complicated paths of self-discovery brought them to a kind of redemption through cooking and eating exceptional food. Certainly, none of them were what mainstream American popular culture of the early 1960s, with its tight focus on manly men and girlish women, had a place for. The absence of a high-prestige food establishment in the early 1960s, as well as their own exceptional gifts, allowed the three to create a niche that fit their contours.
Perhaps in response to growing interest in home breadmaking sparked by the self-sufficiency and natural-foods principles of counterculture, Beard released a bread cookbook, Beard on Bread, in 1973. It was a critical and popular success that introduced Beard, whose career as a food writer began in 1940, to a new generation of home cooks. Kamp notes that the book’s design made it look like “a Yankee cousin of The Tassajara Bread Book,” the bestseller that had emerged from the counterculture three years previous to Beard’s book. Certainly, Beard’s condemnation of the “spongy, plasticized, tasteless breads” produced commercially was every bit as forceful as his counterculture contemporaries’. His vision of the ideal future, however, was more nostalgic than revolutionary. “People are trying to achieve good honest bread in their own kitchens once again, and that is perhaps the healthiest sign of all—a return not only to home baking but also to the most fundamental traditions in American society*.”
Beard, quintessentially purist, was critical of what he saw as a counterculture-cuisine tendency to throw everything but the kitchen sink, grain-wise, into the mix, in hopes of producing the ultimate healthful loaf. His own approach to breadmaking, demonstrated in the recipe below, is marked by his characteristic commitment to simplicity, purity, and a down-home familiarity that is wholesome American cuisine at its best.
Verbatim from Beard, James. Beard on Bread. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1973
This is a deliciously crunchy loaf with a texture quite different from that of most other breads, although it is somewhat similar to oatmeal bread. I find it best freshly sliced and toasted, and make it often to use for breakfast, since it is a good keeper. It makes a beautiful, well-risen loaf that should be thoroughly cooled before slicing. Don’t let the smell of it tempt you into cutting a big chunk off while it is still hot.
½ cup cornmeal
1 cup boiling water
1 teaspoon salt
2 packages active dry yeast
½ cup warm water (100° to 115°, approximately)
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 cup warm milk
2 – 3 teaspoons salt
¼ cup dark brown sugar
4 to 4 ½ cups all-purpose flour (preferably unbleached)
Pour the cornmeal into the boiling water with the salt and stir vigorously until it cooks thick (about 4 minutes). Place it in a large mixing bowl to cool. Proof the yeast with the granulated sugar in the water, then pour into the mixing bowl with the cooled cornmeal mixture. Mix well. Add the warm milk, salt, brown sugar, and flour, 1 cup at a time, stirring very well after each addition of flour. When the mixture is well blended and begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl, turn out on a lightly floured board and knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 to 12 minutes, adding more flour as needed. Butter a large bowl, Place the dough in the bowl and turn to coat with the butter on all sides. Cover and set in a warm, draft-free place to double in bulk.
Punch the dough down and turn out on a lightly floured board. Cut in half, shape into two loaves, and let rest while you butter two 9 x 5 x 3-inch tins. Place the dough in the tins, cover, and let rise again until almost doubled in bulk, or just level with the tops of the baking tins. Bake in a preheated 425° oven for 10 minutes, then lower the temperature to 350° and continue baking for 20 to 25 minutes, until the bread is nicely browned and sounds hollow when removed from the tins and rapped with the knuckles on top and bottom. Place the loaves, without tins, on the oven rack for a few minutes, to crisp the crust. Cool on racks before slicing.
*James Beard, American Cookery (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972), 5