James M. Villas, 80, Renowned Food Writer

Feb. 10, 1938-Aug. 24, 2018
Durell Godfrey

James Milton Villas, the author of 12 cookbooks who wrote hundreds of articles during 27 years as food and wine editor of Town & Country magazine and also made frequent television appearances, died in his sleep at his East Hampton home on Friday. He had emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He was 80. 

Mr. Villas’s writing about food and travel also appeared in Life, The New Yorker, Bon Appétit, Travel and Leisure, Gourmet, Esquire, Food and Wine, and Saveur.  He was featured on TV on “Good Morning, America” and “Today” as well as a number of CNN and CNBC programs. 

His mother, according to his family, inspired most of his food writing. He also wrote a memoir and numerous letters on local topics to The Star. He extolled peanut butter as a favorite food.

Mr. Villas bought a house in East Hampton at the urging of The New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne and the renowned chef Pierre Franey, who were among his friends. Over the course of his life, he became friends with other luminaries of the food world, including James Beard, Paul Prudhomme, Maida Heatter, M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Paul Bocuse, Paula Wolfert, Barbara Kafka, and Ruth Reichl, among others. He won six James Beard Awards, which are thought of as the food world’s Oscars. 

As a young man, Mr. Villas received a Fulbright to study in France at the University of Grenoble. It apparently was there that his fascination with food developed, especially at a visit to L’Hotel de la Cote d’Or in Saulieu, five hours outside Paris, where he thought he would have a sandwich but ended having numerous courses and being befriended by the chef over coffee, cognac, and Gauloises.

In a 2007 feature in The East Hampton Star, Laura Donnelly called him handsome, agile, and courtly, saying he was “deeply intellectual and opinionated and so resolutely Southern.” At another time, she described his tips for preserving jams and jellies.

He was born in Charlotte, N.C., on Feb. 10, 1938, one of two children of the former Martha Pierson and Harold J. Villas. His sister, Patricia Villas Royal, died before him. He grew up there, graduating from Myers Park High School where he played football and performed in theater productions. He also sang in the boys choir of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte. 

Mr. Villas received bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Ph.D. in romance languages and comparative literature. He continued his studies at Middlebury College in Vermont.

His cousins, Elizabeth T. Anderson and Mary Theiling, both of Charlotte, and Martha Theiling Lynch of Fayetteville, N.C., are his only survivors. They accepted his ashes after cremation. There was no service, as he had requested.

The family wanted to express appreciation for the friendship and care extended to Mr. Villas “in his weakest of times” by Bruce and Linda Weed and Jim and Margaret Norland, all of East Hampton, and for Dr. Ralph Gibson’s friendship and medical care over the years.

Mr. Villas was fond of beagles, his family said, and “Bridgett, 8 years old, was with him to the end.” They suggested memorial donations to the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons, P.O. Box 901, Wainscott 11975.