James Villas never had a lightly held opinion, whether it was the superiority of the cooking of France or the best way to cut a biscuit.
A native of Charlotte who left as a Rhodes Scholar, he hit the world determined to make his mark. And that he did, as a pioneering food writer and the award-winning author of cookbooks. Before food writing went digital, he wrote for almost every publication that mattered, from Esquire to Gourmet, and spent decades on the masthead of Town & Country.
Villas died Friday at the age of 80, in East Hampton, where Villas had retired after many years in New York City. His death was confirmed by the Yardley and Pino Funeral Home in East Hampton. No service is planned.
In New York, Villas ran with a food-celebrity crowd. He was close friends with James Beard himself, with Jeremiah Tower and with New York Times restaurant critic Craig Claiborne.
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“He was the most opinionated person I ever met, and the most informed, and a rascal,” said one of his editors, Fran McCollough, who now lives in Hillsborough. “He just loved to fight.”
One of his favorite pronouncements, saved for anything from under-browned toast to any form of frozen food: “That makes me gag,” usually declared with rolled eyes.
Villas may have left Charlotte behind, but he never completely left Charlotte behind. Starting in the 1990s, Villas and his mother, the late Martha Pearl Villas, dug through her recipe collection and wrote a book, “My Mother’s Southern Kitchen,” playing off their mother/son banter and their strongly held opinions. The Villases became such hits that they went on to write two more books in the series.
Martha Pearl Villas died in 2009, and her son made sure that she was buried with a flask of bourbon in her hand.
Villas went on to write one more major book, “Pig: King of the Southern Table” in 2011. (He dedicated it to me, because he said he took the inspiration from a series I wrote on country ham.) He won a James Beard Foundation award that year.
Shortly after, in fading health, he left New York for good and settled year-round at his weekend home in East Hampton.
“He was always telling me how many degrees he had,” McCollough recalls. “I think he had one in linguistics. He would argue over the tiniest word.
“After eating all over the world, though, it was North Carolina he was wild about.”