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A Delightful Dish James Beard Cooked for Himself When Dining Alone

Columnist Eric Kim on self-quarantining, and the best way to use up leftover vegetables sitting in the crisper drawer.

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March 20, 2020
Photo by Julia Gartland. Food Stylist: Samantha Seneviratne. Prop Stylist: Sophie Strangio.

Table for One is a column by Senior Editor Eric Kim, who loves cooking for himself—and only himself—and seeks to celebrate the beauty of solitude in its many forms.


“As a boy in Portland, James almost always ate by himself,” says John Birdsall, author of the forthcoming The Man Who Ate Too Much, on American cook and food writer James Beard. Birdsall and I are both self-quarantined, in San Francisco and New York City respectively. I’ve just reached out to him because I’m writing about Beard’s asparagus, and I figured, as someone who’s just written the man’s biography, Birdsall might have something to say about it.

The recipe—though hardly a recipe—is nested within a clause at the end of Beard’s 1964 memoir, Delights and Prejudices, on the foods he likes to eat when he’s alone:

… if it is in season, I will have asparagus, either boiled quickly till tender but still crisp—and this with no embellishment save salt and freshly ground black pepper—or cut in paper-thin diagonal slices and tossed with butter and soy for two or three minutes in a hot skillet, which gives it a delightful texture.

The second preparation (“cut in paper-thin diagonal slices and tossed with butter and soy”) piques my interest most—especially these days, as I’m cooking for myself more than ever and looking for inspiration anywhere I can. Tonight, this asparagus feels not only doable, but stupidly simple. Surely just butter and soy sauce couldn’t possibly make anything taste that good ... right?

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Top Comment:
“Been combing through Beard’s Menus For Entertaining (1965) and soy sauce teams up with ‘catsup’ and honey in a sauce for Double Roast Loin of Pork. Tomorrow I think I’ll stroll through Beard on Bread. Seems there will be plenty of days ahead to do just that. Thanks for the lovely read, Eric. Stay safe.”
— Ellen G.
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But of course it does.

First, I slice up my bundle of asparagus as thinly as I can, all on the bias—but three ways, because “diagonal slices” could mean anything: 1) short little oval coins, 2) oblique, one- to two-inch slivers, and 3) long, dramatic stem-to-tip shavings along the vegetable’s entire length. Next, I heat up a skillet, melt a pat of butter, and sauté the asparagi for barely a minute, then splash in some soy sauce and watch as it bubbles up and creates a sticky glaze around the vegetables.

"Paper-thin diagonal slices." Photo by Julia Gartland. Food Stylist: Samantha Seneviratne. Prop Stylist: Sophie Strangio.

“The soy sauce must come from Jue-Let’s influence,” I write to Birdsall, referring to the Canton-born chef who worked alongside Beard’s mother and served as a surrogate father figure for the lonely boy.

“James grew up in emotionally difficult circumstances,” Birdsall tells me, “the only child of parents who despised each other and so cultivated separate lives. But that recipe isn't from Jue-Let.”

Apparently, Birdsall says, this paper-thin asparagus is a variation of a dish that Helen Evans Brown—author of Helen Brown’s West Coast Cook Book, not to mention Beard’s friend and collaborator—made often, called Tin How Asparagus. “Helen's version is more elaborate,” Birdsall tells me. “It calls for chicken stock, garlic, and a cornstarch thickening—and very thin asparagus cut either across the stalks into pea-sized pieces, or on the oblique in the Chinese manner.”

As I eat my buttery, soy sauce–slicked asparagus with a side of leftover white rice, I’m surprised at how something so simple could taste so complete, so nourishing. Though Birdsall is able to confirm that Beard’s wording (“paper-thin diagonal slices”) does indeed most likely mean cut No. 2, there’s something pleasurable about eating various shapes of the same vegetable, all with slightly different textures. As for the sauce, I feel silly for not having come up with the combination myself: butter and soy sauce. That’s it.

"Tossed with butter and soy." Photo by Julia Gartland. Food Stylist: Samantha Seneviratne. Prop Stylist: Sophie Strangio.

“James's use of soy sauce would, in his mind, identify him as a West Coast cook (he'd grown up in Portland and coastal Oregon), and he wore his western identity proudly,” Birdsall says. “He and Helen were constantly battling what they saw as a snobbish and inflexible elite of New York food editors, who insisted their writers address a Northeastern U.S. audience—cooks presumably unfamiliar with West Coast ingredients like avocados, abalone, tortillas, and soy sauce, though of course the latter was available on the East Coast in many markets. (James even became a pitchman in magazine ads for Kikkoman soy sauce.)”

The main thing I learn in my conversation with Birdsall is that “the bow-tied bachelor gourmand” I had fallen in love with while reading Delights and Prejudices may not have been the actual man. A quote I’ve referred back to often in this column is: “Somehow I have never minded dining alone. Instead, I find it is a rare opportunity for relaxing and collecting my senses, and I have always made each occasion something of a ceremony.”

But Birdsall tells me otherwise: “By the time James wrote Delights and Prejudices, when he was 60, he'd altered the narrative of his childhood to make it sound rosier, more idyllic. As an adult, he hated to eat by himself, hated being lonely, even as he waged a lifelong battle with depression.”

James grew up in emotionally difficult circumstances, the only child of parents who despised each other and so cultivated separate lives. As a boy in Portland, he almost always ate by himself.
John Birdsall

As I’m in my apartment, alone for another day, I actually find comfort in this new portrait of Beard. Neither rosy nor idyllic, this version of the Man Who Ate Too Much shows all sides of what it’s really like to dine alone—not just when you want to, but when you have to.

At the end of our correspondence, Birdsall adds an important note of hope: “The periods in James' life when he shopped, foraged, and ate by himself were also some of his most creative, including when he was finishing the writing of Delights and Prejudices.” I love hearing Birdsall talk about his subject like this, filling out those empty spaces—in and out of the kitchen, but also on the page—proving yet again that history is nothing without context, and the giants whose shoulders we stand on were once alone, too, and survived it just fine.

"Our work-from-home lunch, a good one to make for people you love." Photo by Kristen Miglore/Instagram
... tossed with butter and soy for two or three minutes in a hot skillet ...
James Beard

The other day, our Genius Recipes columnist, Kristen Miglore, took this little sliver of Beardian advice I shared with her during one of our water-cooler talks before the office shut down—and ran with it. Alone with her family and just a few pantry staples, her work-from-home lunch included a side of “green things very quickly cooked in butter and soy sauce.” In her case, not asparagus, but close: snow peas.

And the texture, she confirmed, was delightful.

To read more, you can preorder John's book, The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard (W. W. Norton, 2020). Please take care of yourselves, and let us know if you need anything at all.

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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Eric Kim is a senior editor at Food52, where his solo dining column, Table for One, runs Friday mornings. Formerly the managing editor at Food Network and a PhD candidate in literature at Columbia University, he writes about food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho.

33 Comments

Yvonne March 28, 2020
My family and I think this is absolutely delicious, I’ve made this twice in about 10 days. Asparagus being in season makes this extremely inexpensive to make. My only addition was a minced clove of garlic, yummm! Thank you , this is definitely a new favorite!
 
Christine March 27, 2020
I found this recipe about 7 years ago, but I like to add 1 tsp. of Balsamic vinegar to round it out. It sounds like such an odd combination, but it’s really good and always a hit with people. Thanks and stay safe.
 
Elizabeth March 24, 2020
My grocery store was out of a lot of different produce but they had some beautiful asparagus. I made this for my family last night and everyone agreed it was delicious. Simple and comforting. I never would have thought to prepare asparagus like. Thank you for the wonderful article and recipe. I'm sure I'll make this many more times.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. March 24, 2020
I’m so glad, Elizabeth. Thank you for reporting back.
 
sf-dre March 23, 2020
My markets have the really thin asparagus, bet they would be great cooked this way. There's always snap peas and noodles.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. March 24, 2020
When I first made this, I had it with the pencil-thin asparagus. It was wonderful in a different way. Very crunchy.
 
KR March 23, 2020
oh! I was so inspired by your writing & a memory of something I had forgotten about, that I went to the store & bought both asparagus and mange-tout peas! ...I used to make a drizzly mix of melted butter with tamari sauce for freshly popped popcorn. So delicious! So, it's easy for me to picture this combo with the veggies. Thanks for the reminder/inspiration. I've enjoyed your stories very much. Wishing you, and everyone, well.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. March 23, 2020
Wow, popcorn. That sounds incredible.
 
KR March 25, 2020
Oh it is!! So worth the dental floss later!!!! ; )
 
Sandy March 23, 2020
Your recipe for Corn Flour and Orange Mini Bundt cakes -- could this be made in one regular sized bundt pan, if one does not have the minis??? Thanks -- sounds like a delicious way to use up some corn flour I bought for another purpose!
 
Stephanie D. March 22, 2020
I just got 2 bunches of asparagus at the store; they were standing so tall and proud in their ice tray that they called to me to choose them. Usually I just roast them in a very hot oven, but I will definitely be trying this recipe for my lunch today!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. March 22, 2020
I'm so glad, Stephanie. Hope you love it.
 
Ellen G. March 21, 2020
I vividly recall the Kikkoman commercial with James Beard! Been combing through Beard’s Menus For Entertaining (1965) and soy sauce teams up with ‘catsup’ and honey in a sauce for Double Roast Loin of Pork. Tomorrow I think I’ll stroll through Beard on Bread. Seems there will be plenty of days ahead to do just that. Thanks for the lovely read, Eric. Stay safe.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. March 22, 2020
John showed me a bunch of the print ads, too, from the archives at Columbia University. So fun. And I adore Beard on Bread; such a relaxing read. Thanks for stopping by, Ellen. :) -E
 
Annada R. March 21, 2020
I would have thought of butter and soy sauce as incompatible ingredients. But if its good enough for James Beard & Eric Kim, I'm going to try it! Thank you Eric, for another thoughtful article.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. March 22, 2020
Thanks for reading, Annada. I appreciate it!
 
Smaug March 22, 2020
Actually, butter and soy sauce are mostly a very typical combination of salt, fat and umami, largely covering the professional chef's clichés- no sugar, but who would put sugar on asparagus? Well, there's probably someone out there chopping up asparagus and putting it in chocolate chip cookies, but we'll hope it never happens here.
 
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Eric K. March 22, 2020
Oof. I imagine it would make the cookies taste gassy.

Aaand you were correct: https://www.thedailymeal.com/recipes/asparagus-cookies-recipe
 
Smaug March 22, 2020
Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?
 
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Eric K. March 23, 2020
http://www.midcenturymenu.com/2016/02/beef-fudge1967-a-vintage-recipe-test/
 
Smaug March 23, 2020
But it must be Hereford beef. I never thought of Muddy Creek Ranch as a culinary destination, but this is pure genius, if somewhat derivative; I believe that Max Shulman wrote of a lamb sundae, and of course there was Steinbeck's beer milkshake. And that thing that Rachel made and Joey ate...
 
Diana March 21, 2020
Thank you. Same idea as Bittman’s lovely recipe for steak fried in butter/soy/ginger (NYT Cooking). Simple and fabulous.
 
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Eric K. March 21, 2020
Love that recipe.
 
jap123 March 21, 2020
Thanks for sharing full information
 
jap123 March 21, 2020
Thanks for sharing this information, Such a lovely story and tips for those people who are lover of tasty food.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. March 21, 2020
Anytime!
 
Rhonda35 March 20, 2020
Beautiful story, Eric! Thank you for solving the problem of what to cook for myself tonight. Stay healthy!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. March 20, 2020
Thank you, Rhonda! Likewise.
 
Mary A. March 20, 2020
I was a resident at St Vincent’s and James Beard’s townhouse was directly across the street. Every time I went to clinic I would peer in and see his large figure sitting in a director’s chair in what was his kitchen. I remember seeing the pineapple wall paper and actually met him on one occasion. He use to shop at the Jefferson market as I recall. I definitely read the book when it comes out. Thanks for the memories today. Good times back then.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. March 20, 2020
Mary, thanks for sharing that snapshot of Mr. Beard. Whenever I have dinner at that house I place him in different rooms and chairs (in my head). I wish I could've met him.
 
Celeste S. March 20, 2020
Lovely, Eric. The melancholy and comfort-seeking you can feel in Beard's story behind the dish - and the joy and triumph in finding comfort in the simple things! I also love the idea of the mixed textures and will definitely be cooking this up for myself sometime soon <3

(p.s. it reminds me of these buttered noodles my roommate used to make in college - I thought she was nuts when she first told me, but of course she wasn't. Butter, hot sauce, soy, and parm. Give it a whirl with egg noodles, it rules.)
 
tia March 20, 2020
those noodles sound delicious. I might have to try that! Lots of time to cook for myself these days, which is a mixed blessing.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. March 20, 2020
Melancholy and comfort-seeking, indeed. Feels like the theme of these days.

And agree w/ tia, those noodles sound like a dream. I'll have to try that sometime.