William Braxton Jamison, 1942-2015: Prolific food and travel writer remembered for infectious laugh, superb poker skills

Bill Jamison. Photo courtesy Sharon Stewart

Bill Jamison was a consummate poker player, a man with an infectious laugh and a superior intellect. With his wife, Cheryl Alters Jamison, he won four James Beard Foundation awards for culinary writing and was the author of some two dozen travel books and cookbooks.

The Jamisons, once dubbed the “king and queen of grilling and smoking” by Bon Appétit magazine, have a new book coming out next month — The Barbecue Lover’s Big Book of BBQ Sauces — and another publishing later with recipes from Restaurant Martín in Santa Fe. But Bill won’t be around for their release. The longtime Tesuque resident died Tuesday of complications from cancer. He had received treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona and died at a hospice in Phoenix. He was 73.

Cheryl Jamison said she had known her husband since her 22nd birthday, although they didn’t marry until 1985. “He has been this huge piece of my life since then,” she said Friday. “My best friend, soul mate, love of my life — and business partner.”

As a couple, they wrote 18 food-related books, including 100 Grill Recipes You Can’t Live Without, The Big Book of Outdoor Cooking & Entertaining, Born to Grill and Smoke & Spice, which is used to train chefs at the Culinary Institute of America and has sold more than 1 million copies. They taught cooking classes, wrote articles about food for national magazines, gave lectures and judged cooking contests. They were long at the center of the food scene in Santa Fe.

In addition to food and family — including three beloved grandchildren — former Gov. Bill Richardson said Bill Jamison loved the arts, progressive politics, rock music and the L.A. Dodgers.

Richardson, a longtime friend of the couple, said Friday, “In Bill Jamison, we have lost a true friend of the arts and an adventurer whose travels we have all shared through his award-winning books. He had a boundless enthusiasm for the big and small things in life, and we will miss his determination to make a difference.”

Cheryl Jamison said many people have asked how the couple could work together so well for so long. But except for the couple of tense weeks before a book deadline, they “enjoyed the heck out of it,” she said.

Nicole Ammerman, the owner of the Santa Fe School of Cooking where the Jamisons have taught classes, said, “Cheryl was the detail, nuts-and-bolts person. Bill was the comedy part. He had this infectious laugh. And he added a lightness to the things they did together that made it really fun. They complemented each other so well.”

She remembers them both as generous. Fourteen years ago, Ammerman’s plans for a wedding rehearsal dinner in the Santa Fe National Forest were foiled by forest closures, and the Jamisons offered their own house, a converted dairy barn in Tesuque, for the event. “They’re really warm people,” she said.

Barbara Templeman, an interior designer in Santa Fe, went on two weeklong cooking courses with the Jamisons in France. “His job was to clean up and also make sure we didn’t drink wine until we had finished using the knives,” she said.

“All our social interactions were around food and laughter and friendship and just having a good time,” she said. “What I’ll miss most is his infectious laugh, crazy, loud, wild. He lived his life with such passion and commitment.”

Dorothy Massey, owner of Collected Works Bookstore & Coffeehouse, said, “Bill brought a wonderful smile and a genuine love of life to every room he entered — whether it was the farmers market at daybreak or an evening of wine, food and conversation to celebrate a new book or a new award.”

Moreover, she said, “His devotion to and admiration of Cheryl’s talents and their great ability to communicate anywhere and with anyone that attended their always popular signings made these occasions a bookseller’s dream. The literary and culinary world will not be the same for thousands of Bill’s friends and admirers.”

Jamison was born in Oklahoma City and moved with his parents to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where he developed his taste for barbecue brisket and spicy chiles. He served in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, graduated from the University of North Texas and later finished coursework and exams for an advanced degree in American history from the University of Kansas.

While a student, he brewed beer at home until his stock, contained in old Coke bottles, exploded, his wife said.

Jamison did graduate work at the University of Birmingham, England, then was a professor at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, now Texas State. Later, he went to work for the the National Humanities Series, a Woodrow Wilson Foundation project, then for the Texas Arts Commission and the Oklahoma Council on the Arts & Humanities. In 1977, he became a regional representative for the National Endowment for the Arts, then director of the Western States Arts Foundation in Santa Fe.

Then he decided to try travel and food writing.

“He knew his own mind better than most people,” Cheryl Jamison said. “He knew what was important to him, and he always had a great method for scoping out situations.”

That, she explained, made him a great poker player. He once competed in an international tournament in Aruba and made a yearly visit to Las Vegas, Nev., for the World Series of Poker. “We agreed 20 years ago he could have a $1,000 poker stash,” she said, and as long as he could keep that going, she didn’t object to gambling.

A celebration of Jamison’s life will be held at 3 p.m. April 19 in the St. Francis Auditorium of the New Mexico Museum of Art.

The couple had planned a family trip to Hawaii with the grandchildren in June. The prospect of that adventure kept her husband going for a long time, Cheryl Jamison said. She still plans to go ahead, in his honor. And she will be carrying a portion of his ashes to scatter on the beach.

His passing, she said, was a “bad beat,” a poker phrase Bill Jamison liked that refers to holding a strong hand, but still losing.

Contact Anne Constable at 986-3022 or aconstable@sfnewmexican.com.

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