Dishing: On John Birdsall’s “The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard”
By Benjamin Aldes WurgaftOctober 22, 2020
The Man Who Ate Too Much by John Birdsall
Through a series of essays beginning with “America, Your Food Is So Gay” (published in Lucky Peach in 2014), Birdsall has established himself as our pioneering writer on the unacknowledged role played by closeted gay men in shaping America’s food culture. But it was a paragraph in his profile of the non-closeted Jeremiah Tower, the gay chef who helped establish the reputation of Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse and the man behind San Francisco’s Stars restaurant, where Birdsall himself cooked in the late 1980s, that made me love Birdsall’s prose:
Now, in Mérida, I’m sitting in a car with my former idol, hurtling to lunch. He’s put the cell phone away and is dishing about the town’s expat community, a group he’s largely avoided. “They just want to talk about maids, of which there are none, and their health,” he says. “All their little aches and pains.” He isn’t ready to be old.
In The Man Who Ate Too Much, Birdsall displays this same salutary willingness to reckon with his influences, addressing their flaws as well as their brilliance. His prose style cuts to the chase. James was never quite ready to be old either, and after he established himself as the dean of American cooking, he struggled to maintain his influence in a culinary world that changes as seasonally as couture. He struggled all his life, in fact, as his mother had struggled all hers. One lesson of Birdsall’s book is the sheer contingency of creative success in food work. It took a combination of good fortune, friendships strategically pursued if sincerely enjoyed, occasional episodes of backstabbing, regular self-plagiarism, and bouts of downright recipe theft, to build James’s career.
Perhaps James’s signal contribution was to establish American cooking as a field unto itself, at a time when France was still the world’s center of gastronomy. But to help us understand this achievement, Birdsall takes us back to the Oregon of James’s childhood. James’s mother had made her way to Oregon as a young immigrant from England, a gamekeeper’s daughter who would discover food work for herself in America as a boardinghouse matron and caterer. She began life as Mary Elizabeth Jones (called Elizabeth), and, after a previous marriage that left her widowed, she became Elizabeth Beard when she married John Beard, a customs inspector in Portland. All evidence suggests it was a loveless marriage of convenience for Elizabeth, who wanted a child; it’s less clear what John got out of it.
Both she and John had been previously married, and John would go on to have a separate family, kept entirely apart from the quiet Beard house on Salmon Street in Portland. Elizabeth seems to have had one bright romance in her youth, with a friend named Stella, which stirred feelings she never found in her later relationships with men. Reading Birdsall, I came to suspect that one of Elizabeth’s legacies to her son was a lesson about food and sex: the former was a reliable source of publicly acceptable pleasure, in those times when certain kinds of romance were not. Neither of the previous biographies of Beard, Evan Jones’s Epicurean Delight (1990) or Robert Clark’s The Solace of Food (1994), makes James’s queerness as central as Birdsall’s does.
The book opens on a train ride to the Oregon coast, as Elizabeth and James travel to the seaside town of Gearhart, northwest of Portland. This is where they spent their summers, and where Elizabeth kept a cottage she owned separately from John. Unlike the wealthy Portlanders who summered at Gearhart, they had work to do; Elizabeth ran a catering business serving vacationers, and young James assisted. The Man Who Ate Too Much is skillfully written throughout, but the best descriptive writing comes early, as Birdsall imagines that train ride and the way mother and son cooked and ate their way through the summer.
Birdsall has done his research with enviable skill. He gives us the smoke and wood and coal of the early-20th-century century kitchen, long before the advent of “labor-saving devices.” He knows how the ham Elizabeth and James carried to the seashore would have been wrapped (in waxed paper and then canvas), and he knows how she made it, a lengthy process involving a baby’s tin bathtub, vinegar and bay leaves, mustard powder and brown sugar, and hours of simmering and baking. They would eat this ham through much of the summer, consuming it in soups and sandwiches, and as little delicious fragments. But James loved oysters, too. “He knew the sound they’d make, hissing and foaming, edging into brownness, with a scent so rich it would seem capable of tinting the air gold.” When I got to Birdsall’s description of “[r]azor-clam chowder, delicate biscuits, and some of the petite local peas suffused with the mineral sweetness of Clatsop soil, lavished with butter churned nearby on Henry Ober’s dairy farm,” I had to put the book down and cook something. I did this again and again, as I read my way through its nearly 400 pages.
Elizabeth’s work catering beachside picnic lunches and formal teas flowed naturally from her experience as a boardinghouse matron, but she clearly wanted something from food besides an income. On Salmon Street, she provisioned “as though she were the mistress of a great house […] directing a fantasy in which food was the center of a shared life.” Much of the cooking was done by a Chinese-born cook named Jue Let, whose services the family retained, and who served James a memorable “golden jelly,” a carefully reduced essence of chicken. Although Birdsall does not underscore this point, I suspect it was critical for James that he grew up knowing food as a kind of work, as opposed to just a source of pleasure at the family table and in restaurants. He understood the labor involved, and the importance of good ingredients. But he must have understood the links between taste and class, too, and the way working with food gives a person an insider’s relationship to taste experiences they might not otherwise access. A skillful professional might end up navigating between the world of food work, which is after all a kind of manual labor, and the world of luxurious consumption.
At the height of his fame, in later life, James would teach cooking classes in a professional kitchen at his home in Greenwich Village, often assisted by younger cooks. His clientele was upscale, his fees high. He was providing an elite version of a service his mother had once provided: teaching people that good-tasting food is a way of living well, a marker of lifestyle, and often the centerpiece in a vision of — or a fantasy about — connection to other people. Once he had money himself, James liked to spend it on food and clothing. One thing to know about the people who work in and around fine dining is that they are professional seducers of a sort, and they usually learned that art by having been seduced themselves.
James was a lonely boy who eventually found his public voice on the stage, where he discovered — fatefully for his later career as a food educator — that he loved to act and entertain. Now we’d call him a theater kid — one who, at age 18, was six foot three and 240 pounds, a size he carried better on stage than off. James enrolled at Reed College in Portland in 1920, expecting to graduate with the class of 1924. Reed had been founded 12 years before with the goal of providing a liberal arts education to young men and women (at a time when coeducation was almost a novelty), without the baggage and class prejudices of the elite schools of the Northeast. Partly out of financial need, Reed’s leaders were eager to impress upon the region that theirs was an institution that guarded morality and prepared young people to live within its confines; when James became sexually involved with one of his teachers, a professor of German who directed Reed’s tiny but active and public-facing theater program, he was expelled on the basis of “academic underperformance.” His professor quickly left Reed and went into advertising, in an effort to escape the social and professional stigma that homosexuality brought. You can now buy a pint glass emblazoned with the Reed insignia and the slogan “Communism, Atheism, Free Love,” but you couldn’t in 1920. The injury of expulsion stayed with James his entire life, although this wouldn’t keep him from eventually accepting an honorary doctorate from the college, or from remembering the institution in his will. Elite colleges, like fine food, are the objects of aspiration and desire.
James’s post-Reed youth did not lead him in promising directions, to put it mildly. He had a failed run at an opera career, fumbling his first major audition in London; he traveled in Europe and New York City; he caught glimpses of queer subcultures he could not quite join. He ate some beautiful peas while in London, about which Birdsall writes: “He imagined thousands of others doing the same thing that night, quietly, at kitchen tables across the vast city, from sacks of early peas bought from greengrocers: a map of cravings satisfied in private.” Like many food writers and cookbook authors, James passed through several prior incarnations, including stage actor, radio announcer, Hollywood extra (in Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings and Erich von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly), high school teacher, and store manager. By his late 30s, he had resigned himself to the slow fading of his early dreams of glory.
Working in food service saved him, but entirely by accident. James found a kind of work in domestic entertainment, helping his friends cater cocktail parties; he eventually teamed up with a German brother and sister, Bill and Irma Rhode, to establish the catering company Hors d’Oeuvre, Inc. They did well enough to attract the attention of Jeanne Owen, president and secretary of the New York chapter of the International Wine and Food Society, who retained them to help cater a reception at the Waldorf-Astoria’s Starlight Roof. An actress herself, and a collector of young gay men as mentees, Jeanne took James under her wing. His social circle expanded dramatically, and his connections throughout the New York food world did as well. Jeanne got him his first break into food writing: Hub Olsen, editor at M. Barrows and Company, commissioned James’s first cookbook, drawing upon his entertaining work with the Rhodes, work he would soon abandon. Birdsall describes a striking moment in James’s life: taking the train west to visit Portland, where Elizabeth’s heart seemed likely to give out, James was simultaneously a loving, concerned son and a more suspect character; he had just quit Hors d’Oeuvre, Inc., in part because he was about to publish recipes that were only partly his. In his 1944 book Hors D’Oeuvre and Canapes with a Key to the Cocktail Party, James, as Birdsall puts it, knifed Bill and Irma in the back.
So, in his late 30s, James became a cookbook author. After a series of wartime stints serving in the United Seamen’s Service (part of the War Shipping Department), including a dreamy gig in Marseilles, he returned to New York and managed to score a job doing on-air cooking demonstrations for NBC television, and then a 15-minute weekly show called I Love to Eat!, a title made eminently believable by the host’s size. The show lasted until 1947. James traveled the United States on assignments for Gourmet magazine; he sought corporate sponsors and produced short books or pamphlets of recipes for them; he hustled. He even ran a hamburger stand called Lucky Pierre’s on the Nantucket pier. He committed acts of self-plagiarism along the way, not to mention stealing recipes from collaborators and publishing them under his sole name. Birdsall has done the detective work to tell you exactly which recipes James lifted and from where, and what tiny substitutions of ingredients might have served as an excuse. Birdsall is clear about the fact that James used people, and one of the pleasures of The Man Who Ate Too Much is its portrait of the food media world of the mid-20th century as a strategic, political realm, as full of glad-handing and insincere air-kissing as today’s.
But James also began to develop the idea that may be his true legacy: the legitimacy of American, as opposed to French, cooking, a legitimacy achieved by drawing on French models. He created a style of cooking so successful that it seems obvious to us now: an unfussy American counterpart to French cuisine bourgeoise, featuring characteristically American ingredients like smoky bacon. This was farm-to-table food, even if James sometimes made room for canned or frozen ingredients, especially if they carried a sponsor’s label. Anyone familiar with the career of Alice Waters will see a pattern in James’s career that anticipated hers: using European foodways to reinvent American ones. Waters made a version of California Cuisine this way, and it’s no surprise that James would be a big Chez Panisse fan, loving the restaurant in its early, Jeremiah Tower years. James’s American cooking was, notably, a different approach from the one famously taken by his friend Julia Child. She may have enjoyed tacos near her home in Santa Barbara, but for her, fine dining spoke French, and her magnum opus, still ubiquitous 60 years after first publication, is Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961).
Birdsall devotes most of The Man Who Ate Too Much to the twists and turns of James’s career, from his early scrambling, through the establishment of his Greenwich Village cooking school, all the way up to his death in 1985. We meet so many intriguing characters from the world of food and wine — e.g., editor extraordinaire Judith Jones, critic Raymond Sokolov — that the book sometimes feels like a listening post tuned to the gossip of a bygone age. We follow James on so many trips to Europe and beyond (travel was a balm for his depression) that they start to blend together. But Birdsall also attends to James’s great contributions to the cookbook genre: his distinctive narrative voice, which Birdsall calls “camp,” but more foundationally the idea that a cookbook writer should have something like a voice.
Indeed, James’s writing displays an impulse toward personal storytelling that almost recalls M. F. K. Fisher, but because he was being paid to write cookbooks, the format always set limits on his expression. Birdsall pays attention to James’s admiration for Alice B. Toklas, author of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. They met in 1955, at the apartment Toklas had shared with Gertrude Stein, and struck up a friendship; it seems likely that Beard found in Toklas someone who had already developed the kind of authorial voice to which he had been aspiring. But when James wrote a book driven by personal reminiscence, James Beard’s Delights and Prejudices (1964), the popular response disappointed him; his more conventional cookbooks sold better. Perhaps the trouble was that James’s meditations on past meals did not lead to rich descriptions of the personal life that, inevitably, he could not mention. “For James,” as Birdsall puts it, “remembered tastes conjured not acts of human connection but a seemingly endless chain of other tastes.” Yet, ironically, none of James’s work would have been published without human connection: he was a disorganized writer and often needed the help of assistants and editors to draw his prose into its familiar, pleasing shape.
James’s career coincided with the rise of cooking as a leisure activity in America, an activity that conveyed a sense of class belonging, of living the good life. And James helped create the role of the cookbook author and food educator, a new kind of public figure who would instruct and seduce, an agent of fantasy. When it came to the recipes themselves, James may have been more curator than inventor, but he understood that he was in the business of selling aspiration to a very wide readership. This is one of the rules of the food writing genre, at least in the mode that characterizes cookbooks, food magazines, and lifestyle journalism: it trades on our desire for our lives to be “better,” an improvement achieved through the mastery of craft, from perfectly rolled pie dough to a French 75 made according to the original 1915 recipe. We may emerge from reading with a better pie, or a better cocktail, but that adjective is tricky since such betterment is endless, and “perfection” is a relatively empty term with which to approve the moments that please our senses. The most admirable food writing — including The Man Who Ate Too Much — reminds us that enjoying food starts with learning about our own tastes. Good food is the food that pleases us, be it new or familiar.
In his 2000 book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, Anthony Bourdain was keen to impress upon readers the link between food and sex. “Food is sex,” he wrote, drawing upon examples that conjured a rutting, vibrant heterosexuality. Bourdain’s vision of sexuality in the kitchen is perhaps prouder of itself than is usually polite, but certainly, because it was straight, it was publicly acceptable. Birdsall’s book tells a mid-20th-century queer version of that story about the relationship between our gustatory and erotic appetites. In this version, food is still sex, but that link needs suppressing, else it might undermine reputations and careers. One virtue of The Man Who Ate Too Much is its depiction of a man made both happy and unhappy by his appetites, reminding us of the complexity of their interrelation: food and sex can be complements to or surrogates for each other, depending on the person and the circumstances. And, in both food and romance, the question of what or whom we bring intimately close to ourselves is one that everyone answers for themselves — but not without considerable input, or pressure, from the world around us. One of Birdsall’s points in his “Food Is So Gay” essay is that closeted gay men developed coded ways of communicating through food, using it as a means of expressing attitudes and styles of feeling. But James Beard’s story is sadder. His public image was of a somewhat professorial man so in love with food that he needed no other joy in his life at all.
Birdsall approaches the history of food writing as a revisionist of sorts, showing us that the hands and imaginations of gay men shaped later-20th-century American food, even as women like Julia Child also made prominent contributions. White, cosmopolitan, able to speak the vernacular of affluent New Yorkers and Californians but also the down-home language deemed suitable for the kitchen, James enjoyed what now gets called “privilege,” though it meant living a closeted life. His generation of middle-class closeted queers, female and male, living in the West Village, was not the generation of Stonewall or those that have come after, and Birdsall depicts James and his friends as bewildered and sometimes threatened (if also sometimes attracted) by the new queer visibility of the late 20th century.
As I was reading The Man Who Ate Too Much, a news story popped up on my screen, from Eater.com, covering unrest at the James Beard Foundation, best known for its prestigious annual awards (Birdsall is a two-time winner). On July 16, 2020, an anonymous group of employees of the Foundation sent a letter to their leaders, with a set of demands regarding the Foundation’s future. These included everything from more internal diversity within the staff, to transparency regarding salaries and greater equity in pay, to increased BIPOC representation on the organization’s programming committee. As I complete this review, I do not yet know the organization’s response. But I do know that, at a time when the push to topple idols and diversify the food world is powerful, Birdsall’s book seems like an allied effort: a quest to discover a hidden diversity that was always there, albeit disavowed, not yet public, not yet activist.
Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft is a writer and historian. His most recent book is Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food (University of California Press, 2019).
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