James Barber: In Memoriam (Nov 2007)


James Barber died November 29 while reading a cookbook at the kitchen table on his small farm while soup simmered on the stove. He was 84.

He was not the first cook that I watched on television. The first was probably Graham Kerr, the Galloping Gourmet. He was entertaining and though he was showing how to prepare a meal I learned more about enjoying food and wanting to eat well than to actually cook.

James Barber taught me about cooking. A warm and humble man with a soft British accent, one who had come to cooking after many trades, was my original make do cook. I remember quite well when he was talking about preparing a dressing and how if you didn’t have vinegar, lemon juice will do and if not that just about any citric juice, and a light bulb went on in my head. To any cook this is simple stuff but to me at the time it was a revelation. And then I made his simple ginger pork and pears, and if you don’t have pears, apples and it was not fabulous but it was just fine.

He was quite low key compared to the celebrity chefs of today, more the warm presence, kind of a west coast Friendly Giant of cooking. Not as flashy, not self obsessed at all, and most of all utilitarian. He was a little like Anthony Bourdain in that food and eating was more about the company you kept and the deep basics of food rather than theatrical flourishes.

I haven’t seen Barber in over a decade though I just ordered his last book, in order to hear his voice once again.

Probably burning a little right now is a little stir fry concoction I have going on the stove, a mishmash of things, a very James Barber sort of meal. Thank you James for starting me on the path. I’ve made a few complicated dishes but I always come back to the good simple food that Barber championed.


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