That Time I Cold-Called James Beard at Home and He Gave Me His Cherished Onion Sandwich Recipe!
By Susan Puckett for Eldredge ATL
Seeing the Theatrical Outfit production of “I Love to Eat” rekindled my memory of interviewing James Beard.
As a food writer at the Cleveland Plain Dealer in (I believe) 1984, I was putting together a feature for the Sunday Magazine on well-known food people and their favorite midnight snacks. I cast a wide net, putting calls out to the biggest names in the food world I knew of. I tried going through James Beard’s publisher to get his number but no luck. We happened to have a New York telephone book at the office (this was long before the Internet!) and so I looked him up and of course there were dozens of James Beards. I just took a stab at one and dialed it, and the voice that picked up said, “Helloooooo?” and I knew it was him!
Rather flustered, I introduced myself, explained the premise of the story, and without missing a beat, he told me his midnight snack of choice was an onion sandwich, which he described in detail. He was as chatty and gracious as could be, put me completely at ease, and I was thrilled! I think I still have that clip somewhere. That phone meeting was my only encounter with him as he died not long afterward.
This was almost exactly the time frame of James Still’s play, near the end of his life. Much of it revolves around his love of talking to people on the phone, even average cooks from Kansas who would call him out of the blue — as I did — with cooking questions, expressing their surprise to him to find that his number was listed, and he would happily help them work through their dilemma.
AND, those onion sandwiches
also came up – Actor William S. Murphey, as Beard, even demonstrates making
them on stage, and then hands them to an assistant who passes around a plateful
during the performance. I was seated close enough to get to eat one!
It was so special and I feel qualified to attest that it was a pretty accurate depiction of the authentic person he was, based on my own very brief and totally spontaneous encounter, catching him at his home rather than a planned event, so long ago.
I highly recommend it — very entertaining.
James Beard’s Iconic Onion Sandwich Recipe
Adapted from his 1965 book “Menus For Entertaining” and posted on jamesbeard.org
From Eldredge ATL Editor Rich Eldredge: In his 1974 book “Beard on Food,” The Dean of American Cooking concedes that he’s “crazy about onions” and gleefully describes a recently delivered box of Spanish onions. “I happened to have some slightly stale homemade bread. I sliced this very thin, buttered it well, covered it with paper thin slices of Spanish onion, sprinkled them with some coarse salt, and pressed another slice of bread firmly on top — and there was my supper. I can easily make a whole meal of onion sandwiches, for to me they are one of the greatest treats I know.”
While the original Beard recipe calls for small white onions, I would be remiss as an adopted Georgian not to recommend our native sweet Vidalia onion as the recipe’s herbal orb of choice. You may also use a Texas sweet or Spanish onion for this recipe.
12 mini brioche slider rolls or slices of good bread cut either into circles with a water glass or cut into triangles by halving slices of bread with crust removed.
1 cup of your favorite or homemade mayonnaise
2 Vidalia, Texas Sweet or Spanish onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1 bunch flat leaf Italian parsley finely chopped
Using a bread knife, trim top and bottom of brioche rolls. Cut rolls in half to create 24 flat rolls.
Spread each round with a thin layer of mayonnaise. Top half of them with slices of onion and sprinkle with salt. Cover with remaining round of bread. Press them together gently and spread a thin layer of mayonnaise around the edges. Roll each sandwich in chopped parsley.
Place sandwiches in a single layer on a platter and chill for several hours before serving.
Susan Puckett is a James Beard Award nominated author and editor, who served as the food editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 18 years. She is the author of “Eat Drink Delta: A Hungry Traveler’s Journey Though The Soul Of The South” and the co-author with Eddie Hernandez of “Turnip Greens & Tortillas: A Mexican Chef Spices Up The Southern Kitchen.”
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.