‘The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard’
By John Birdsall
c.2020, W.W. Norton & Company
“The Man Who Ate Too Much,” the biography of James Beard by the queer writer John Birdsall released on Oct. 5, is a luscious feast.
“The Man Who Ate Too Much” clocks in at more than 400 pages. Yet, you won’t want to put it down. You’ll want to spend still more time with James Beard, the gay chef, cookbook writer, teacher and TV personality known as the “dean of American cookery,” and his circle of queer and non-queer friends and colleagues. You’ll long to taste a bit of ham or to savor the flavor of raspberries.
Whether you’re a fabulous cook who loves to entertain, or, like me, an introvert who relishes a dinner of popcorn and ice cream, you’ve been influenced by Beard.
The wide scope of Beard’s influence in our culture is evoked in a quote from the restaurant critic Gael Greene in the preface of “The Man Who Ate Too Much.” “In the beginning, there was James Beard,” Greene writes. “Before Julia [Child], before barbecuing daddies…before…chefs as superstars, and our great gourmania…there was James Beard, our big Daddy.”
Beard, who was six-feet-three and weighed around 300 pounds was a celebrity decades before chefs were celebs. Born in Portland, Ore., in 1903, he was a constant presence on the cultural scene from the 1950s until his death in 1985.
Beard wrote numerous cookbooks, including “Cook It Outdoors,” “How to Eat Better for Less Money,” “Delights & Prejudices: A Memoir with Recipes” and (the kitchen bible) “James Beard’s American Cooking.” He hosted one of the first TV cooking shows. For years, (being a great showman), Beard ran and taught at his cooking school.
Today, many of us take farmers markets for granted. We want to cook with local, fresh fruits and vegetables whenever we can. Yet in Beard’s day, when Beard came of age, “the industrialization of American food was well underway,” writes Birdsall, who grew up near San Francisco and learned to cook at Greens restaurant in that city.
Beard resisted this industrialization. He encouraged Americans to appreciate American foods – from Kentucky hams to California wines. Beard wanted people to grow corn on fire escapes and to buy eggs from free-range chickens. Larry Forgione, Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower, and Bradley Ogden were among the many chefs who found a mentor in Beard.
Beard was a national character, Birdsall says. “He was usually genial in public, prone to cornball puns and a folksy delivery that tended to make his audiences lose their anxiety about making a proper soufflé or buying a bottle of wine,” he adds,”Beard made it look fun.”
Yet, beneath this avuncular, easygoing public persona, Beard was uncomfortable in his own skin. From the age of 7, he knew that he liked boys. “To the small circle of New York’s food world, the fact that James Beard was gay was an open secret,” Birdsall writes.
Yet, Beard was terrified that people would find out that he was queer. His terror of being outed wasn’t unreasonable. He was expelled from Reed College as a freshman for committing “an act of oral indecency” with a professor. He knew that his mother, a lesbian, had to keep her love for a woman named Stella under wraps. In the 1950s, during the “Lavender Scare,” queers were targeted as “deviants.”
To everyone other than his circle of queer friends and allies, “the people who bought his cookbooks and read his articles and showed up to his cooking classes — his queerness would have been problematic,” Birdsall writes.
Beard was a fabulous mentor and good friend to many. Yet, as Birdsall reports, there were darker elements to his personality. He often used the recipes of others in his cookbook without attribution. On more than one occasion, he reportedly exposed himself to men who worked for him.
Birdsall, who won a James Beard award for his “Lucky Peach” article “America, Your Food Is So Gay,” was inspired by his uncles Pat and Lou, a gay couple who helped raise him.
Birdsall gives us a portrait of Beard that is neither a take-down nor hagiography. Pat and Lou would love “The Man Who Ate Too Much.”