His appetite was legendary, his influence on food was lasting

James Beard championed American cuisine, mentored chefs, wrote cookbooks. His personal life was a struggle, as biographer John Birdsall explores. 

W. W. Norton & Company
“The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard” by John Birdsall, W. W. Norton & Company; 464 pp.

James Beard has been called the Dean of American Cookery and America’s first foodie. In his juicy new biography, “The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard,” John Birdsall paints a portrait of an epicure who was “devoted to pleasure at the table as an essential part of the good life” – but also of a public persona who had to hide a part of himself in an era of rampant homophobia.

Beard (1903-1985), known for his robust appetite and encyclopedic knowledge of food, was a huge presence in the mid-20th century culinary world. His influence helped seed the current farm-to-table movement and the popularity of farmers’ markets. Birdsall writes that Beard, who weighed close to 300 pounds, “owned his indulgence.” His 1946 cooking show, the first on national television, was called “I Love to Eat.” 

At a time when industrially processed frozen foods and TV dinners were the rage, Beard was an early and adamant proponent of fresh ingredients.  He championed taste over convenience in his many cookbooks, countless magazine columns, and popular cooking classes, creating “a rough blueprint for what writers a quarter of a century later would dub New American.”

But Birdsall, who won a James Beard Award for his 2014 essay, “America, Your Food Is So Gay,” writes of a darker side of Beard’s life: the strain of keeping his homosexuality carefully under wraps. Although Beard came out to his mother and friends at an early age, during his freshman year he was expelled from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, for homosexuality. The experience devastated him, and led indirectly to the creation of an avuncular figure whose “only lust was for food.”

Birdsall’s biography determinedly excavates what Beard and his friends tried to cover up permanently. This includes his decadeslong, choppy relationship with Italian-born architectural draftsman-turned-pastry chef Gino Cofacci, with whom he shared his Greenwich Village townhouse albeit in separate apartments.

“The Man Who Ate Too Much” can be viewed as a sort of companion volume to David Leavitt’s 2006 biography of computer scientist Alan Turing, “The Man Who Knew Too Much” – though Turing’s persecution for his homosexuality had far more serious consequences.

This essentially chronological biography opens with a vivid (if overly long) account of 10-year-old James’ annual spring migration with his mother from their gloomy home in Portland to the bliss of oysters and long swims in coastal Gearhart Park.  

His iconoclastic, English-born mother, Elizabeth, was a seminal influence. A businesswoman who ran a Portland guest house known for its good food, she married Beard’s widowed father, a customs house inspector, because she wanted a child. The marriage was a disaster. Her great love was a woman she rarely saw, and her life “was a never-ending revolt against anyone who ever tried to enclose her.”

Beard’s story highlights life’s unpredictability. His early ambition was to become an opera singer, but he failed his conservatory tryout in London. His attempts at a theatrical career were also “fruitless and frustrating.” His 20s and 30s were filled with odd jobs – teaching drama at a private girls’ school, working in the interior decorating department of a Portland store, playing an extra in movie crowd scenes in which he stood out by virtue of his size.  

It was in New York City that he parlayed his ability to cook into a career. A social creature, he made crucial connections on the party circuit, which led to the creation of a catering company, Hors d’Oeuvre, Inc., which in turn led to his first book contract.

More cookbook contracts followed in rapid succession – despite some problematic practices that Birdsall reveals in this warts-and-all portrait. Beard’s manuscripts were a mess, requiring extensive editing that essentially amounted to co-authorship. His ghostwriters, who helped shape Beard’s voice as a “spirited yet pedantic professor,” received a cut of the advance, but that was usually it: No royalties, nevermind bylines.

Beard, Birdsall tells us repeatedly, was notoriously “stingy with acknowledgments.” This extended to crediting the sources of his recipes. He borrowed without permission from friends and associates, practically verbatim, and also reprinted his own recipes in book after book with only minor tweaks, if any. Birdsall doesn’t excuse him but explains that “curation was James’s mode of authorship.”

What comes through in this sometimes sobering portrait is that the impresario was overextended. Beard rarely said no to a project, even when faced with ridiculously tight deadlines. Although he was good at delegating, he often felt burned out, depressed, and lonely. 

Birdsall’s book is replete with delicious details – like the centerpieces of bread dough slowly rising at Beard’s 80th birthday celebration – but there are some noticeable gaps. Less focus on Beard’s book deals and more of his recipes would have been welcome. So, too, would consideration of his central role in the creation of the remarkable Four Seasons restaurant. Also missing is a nod to the James Beard Foundation, which carries on Beard’s legacy by nurturing chefs and food writers, in part with its annual awards, the Oscars of the gastronomic sphere.

And what a legacy it is. “Beard argued for taste,” Birdsall writes in this rich biography. “He made food central to American identity.”

In addition to The Christian Science Monitor, Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR, The Wall Street Journal, and The Los Angeles Times.

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