If American cuisine has a patron saint, it is James Beard. As early as the 1940s and 1950s, when frozen food and other convenience products were popular, Beard advocated the three elements so commonly cited among chefs today that they’ve become a menu mantra: fresh, local, and seasonal. He founded a cooking school, wrote essays for newspapers and magazines, and from 1946 to 1947, long before Julia Child became television’s most popular cooking star, he hosted the first-ever network food program, I Love to Eat. He published more than twenty cookbooks before his death in 1985, encouraging Americans to embrace the pleasures of eating good food—not just elegant French meals but simple dishes prepared with care. “A much misunderstood word—gourmet,” Beard wrote in How to Eat Better for Less Money (1954). “A boiled potato—a potato cooked to the point at which it bursts its tight skin and shows its snowy interior—can be gourmet food.”
John Birdsall’s lively biography of Beard, The Man Who Ate Too Much, grew out of an essay he wrote in 2014 for the magazine Lucky Peach, titled “America, Your Food Is So Gay,” in which he argued that Beard, along with fellow gay food writers Richard Olney and Craig Claibourne, brought to American cuisine an appreciation for “food that takes pleasure seriously, as an end in itself.” In the preface to the book, Birdsall explains that his stimulus was “rage”:
Lucky Peach was a representation of America’s chef culture, a space where queerness was allowed to flicker only at the margins. A code of straightness ruled the nation’s restaurant kitchens, an ethos oozing corrosive gender tropes. If you were queer in the kitchen, chances were you didn’t dare let your guard slip all the way down—an injustice still aching within me, a gay veteran of those battle zones, years after I’d left cooking to become a writer. Lucky Peach had built an arena for chefs, yet queer voices didn’t rise there. The silence flooded me with grievance—especially since every chef I knew wanted to win a James Beard Award.
Didn’t they realize Beard was gay? Couldn’t they see the irony of thirsting after a medal molded with his image, these chefs for whom homophobia was a scar on the face of kitchen culture?
After his essay won a James Beard Award, Birdsall found himself haunted by the late chef. “I kept thinking about the complicated ways Beard lived a gay life…in the decades after World War II, a period of brutal oppression for queer Americans,” he writes. “How did Beard, at precisely the same time, become the joyful face of American food?”
Born in 1903, Beard grew up in Portland, Oregon. His mother, Elizabeth, a former boardinghouse manager and adept cook whose marriage to his father, John, was cold and unhappy, never overtly discussed her own sexuality with her son, but often told him stories about a trip she made from San Francisco to New York via Panama and the Caribbean in 1888 with Stella Chase Ainsworth, her close friend and likely lover. Her descriptions, replete with details of unusual fruits like mangoes, pineapples, and alligator pears, were, according to Birdsall,
a signal she knew James would be capable of decoding…. It was a lesson James absorbed, if only unconsciously: how to ascribe to food all the thoughts and feelings too dangerous for one to avow openly.
Beard enrolled at Reed College in the fall of 1920 but was expelled during his freshman year after being caught “in an act of oral indecency” with a male professor. He spent the next two years living at home and participating in local theater. When a director suggested that he study voice and acting abroad, his mother encouraged him, and he went to London in the spring of 1923. He failed his audition at the Royal Academy of Music but was taken under the wing of a writer named Helen Dircks, who, Birdsall writes, ordered him “his first London dry martini” and introduced him to her gay friends. He spent the next five months living in London and Paris, where he learned the joys of fresh Warwick peas and boeuf bourguignon.
In the fall of 1923 Beard returned to the US, bouncing from New York City to Portland to Hollywood to Seattle, before returning to Portland in the early 1930s, where he directed a small repertory theater company and cooked at friends’ dinner parties. In 1937 he moved back to New York and, after failing to find work in the theater, began teaching at a girls’ day school in New Jersey. At the same time, he was gaining a reputation for the cocktail parties he threw at the West Village apartment where he rented a room from his wealthy friend Jim Cullum. Beard would pour martinis and old-fashioneds, make jam with the fruit left over from their brandy-and-champagne punch bowls, and even prepare breakfast for overnight guests.
In late 1938, at one of these parties, Beard met the siblings Bill and Irma Rhode, who had grown up in Berlin and were living in New York. Bill had just published a cookbook, Of Cabbages and Kings, based on the cooking lessons Irma had taken at a school in Badenweiler. A month later, Beard, who had no real training in food aside from his mother’s instruction and what he had picked up from friends, quit his teaching job to launch a catering business with the Rhodes: Hors D’Oeuvre, Inc. Bill was the front-of-house manager, charming the hostesses of the Upper East Side, and Beard worked alongside Irma in the kitchen, assembling fried corned beef hash balls or radishes spread with butter and cinched with anchovies to slow the absorption of copious martinis.
Over the course of several juicy chapters, Birdsall traces Beard’s ascent into the elite of New York’s food-obsessed. While working with Hors d’Oeuvre, Inc., Beard was befriended by Jeanne Owen, the president and secretary of the New York chapter of the International Wine and Food Society. Birdsall describes her as
arguably the best-educated gourmet in New York City and a rare connoisseur of wine, ferocious achievements for a woman at a time when men supposed that female culinary ambition could rise no higher than unlocking the secret to perfect angel food cake.
Owen introduced Beard to her gourmet friends, including Hub Olsen, an editor at M. Barrows and Company, who in 1940 offered him a contract for a book on entertaining. Beard wrote Hors D’Oeuvre and Canapés, with a Key to the Cocktail Party in six weeks, scraping together what he had learned over years of hosting parties and traveling abroad.
When Hors D’Oeuvre and Canapés was published in October 1940, it established Beard’s voice as an enthusiastic host happy to share his party tricks; it also marked his break with the Rhodes, whom he had not told about it. Over the next several decades he published many more cookbooks; wrote widely for magazines like Apartment Life, House & Garden, and Gourmet; had a widely syndicated newspaper column; consulted with restaurants and food brands; and struck endorsement deals with companies including Planter’s Peanuts, Omaha Steaks, Green Giant, and French’s mustard. Though these products didn’t always align with Beard’s culinary sensibilities, he used the income to fund the cooking school he founded in the mid-1950s, where he taught until his death.
Beard’s exuberant method of food preparation focused not just on practicalities but on performance and pleasure. One of his most famous bits of showmanship in his classes—which from 1959 on were held in his West Village townhouse—was to demonstrate how to properly whip egg whites for a soufflé by turning the copper bowl of beaten whites upside down over his head to prove that they were whipped to the correct stiffness. His language—buoyant, colorful, campy, and “unabashedly queer,” as Birdsall puts it—was a departure from formulaic how-tos and community cookbooks. In Cook It Outdoors (1941), for example, Beard subverted the hypermasculine tone of many books on barbecue and grilling by using words like “doodadery” and “chichi” and adding a sly wink to his explanation of garlic’s appeal in a recipe: “No refinement here, but like most of the roughnecks, it is fun to have around.”
Beard said that he brought emotion to his recipes because, to him, it was as essential to cooking as correct measurement. “The ability to recall a taste sensation, which I think of as ‘taste memory,’ is a God-given talent,” he wrote in his memoir Delights and Prejudices (1964), comparing himself to Proust:
When Proust recollected the precise taste sensation of the little scalloped Madeleine cakes served at tea by his aunt, it led him into his monumental remembrance of things past. When I recollect the taste sensations of my childhood, they lead me to more cakes, more tastes: the great razor clams, the succulent Dungeness crab, the salmon, crawfish, mussels and trout of the Oregon coast; the black bottom pie served in a famous Portland restaurant, the Welsh rabbit of our Chinese cook, the white asparagus my mother canned, and the array of good dishes prepared by the two of them in that most memorable of kitchens.
In 1954 the chef and cookbook author Charlotte Turgeon nicknamed Beard “the Dean of American Cookery” in her review of James Beard’s Fish Cookery in The New York Times. The label stuck. Beard’s work represented a new perspective on American food—that it was not a poor translation of the cuisines of France or Italy but its own vernacular, one worthy of being preserved and celebrated. He embraced cooking from scratch, advising his audience to “buy good food, and buy often,” and to celebrate local fresh produce and eggs.
Beard’s method was, in Birdsall’s words, “taking a traditional dish and swapping out its signifiers with ones that seem new.” His Brioche en Surprise, for example, took a traditional European Jewish snack of raw onion on rye bread with a layer of schmaltz and switched out the rye for brioche, adding parsley and mayonnaise. He altered the Provençal recipe for roast chicken into his classic chicken with forty cloves of garlic by increasing the quantity of garlic and paring down the traditional herbes de Provence to just parsley and tarragon. Beard wrote recipes for Parker House rolls, Boston baked beans, and spaghetti with prosciutto and frozen green peas. He transformed traditional French daube into Braised Beef, Peasant Style, a pot roast with red wine, cognac, and thyme.
But in doing the swapping, Beard often failed to credit the contributions of other cooks to his recipes, claiming authorship of dishes he had not originated or significantly altered from their source. He did not mention in Hors D’Oeuvre and Canapés that the Rhodes were the originators of some of the recipes he published under his own name, and Birdsall makes clear that this behavior was not limited to that first book. Far from it: in his later books, Beard frequently lifted work from friends, acquaintances, and others—many of them women—with little or no acknowledgment.
Birdsall also points out that Beard’s work frequently benefited from uncompensated editors, including his friend Ruth Norman, who often had to rewrite his sloppy, free-associating prose. He apparently thought that using their labor was a fair exchange for praising them in public and angling for opportunities for them, a situation familiar to anyone who has been asked to do work for so-called exposure.
Beard’s appropriation could be shameless. When he was collaborating with his close friend Helen Evans Brown on The Complete Book of Outdoor Cookery (1955), he copied her recipe for Escabêche de Pescado and published it without attribution in Jim Beard’s Complete Cookbook for Entertaining (1954), a book he kept secret from her until after it came out. In the same book he also took several recipes from Elena Zelayeta, a Mexican cookbook author, with minimal attribution.
Earlier, for his sprawling compendium The Fireside Cook Book (1949), he had enlisted Norman’s help to test and write up about 1,200 recipes—no mean endeavor, particularly considering that his apartment at the time was so small that he had to wash dishes in the bathtub. Despite her crucial contribution, Beard made no acknowledgment of her work in print. In The Fireside Cook Book he also engaged in another dubious practice that continued throughout his career: what Birdsall describes as “brazen acts of self-plagiarism.” In the food world, it became an open secret that Beard copied his own and others’ recipes.
Recipes are not covered by American copyright law unless “accompanied by substantial literary expression.” Certainly Beard’s habit of liberally borrowing other people’s techniques and formulations wasn’t unique, but it was theft, and his ethical violations are an indelible part of his legacy and the culture of food media he helped create. “James’s plagiarism was inexcusable,” Birdsall writes. “It also gave James’s books a Whitmanic quality, a democratic eclecticism, and a sweeping sense of the American character.” Birdsall explains:
Erasing the authorship of others fit two of James’s mythologies. One was personal. It had to do with James’s encyclopedic knowledge and experience of food—for James to cite all of his sources would have challenged the narrative of his vastness.
The other was cultural: his conviction that building an American cuisine was a collective effort, a group project of readers who mailed in recipes to the New York Times, women and men who entered Pillsbury Bake-Offs, and home cooks like [Beard’s friend] Emil Kashouty, a Lebanese American who’d moved to New York City to find enough breathing space to live a cautiously queer life in private.
Birdsall points out that in Beard’s lifetime,
by far the most popular American cookbooks were compendiums such as Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book and Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book, the work of teams of uncredited recipe developers, writers, and editors.
He argues that what Beard did was “something similar, in a way, only under his own name and mythic persona.”
As Beard’s star ascended, there was practically no part of the American food world he didn’t touch. He cooked on live television, took over a hamburger stand in Nantucket for a summer to dish out fresh blueberry pies and experimental chowders, and wrote a cookbook dedicated to the Cuisinart food processor. In 1961 Judith Jones, an editor at Knopf (who went on to win a James Beard Award for her contributions to the cookbook industry), sent him an early manuscript of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck. Beard was one of Child’s earliest champions, and they became fast friends, spending time together cooking and writing at the house of Child and her husband in France.
Beard’s circle was studded with famous names. Truman Capote and Alice B. Toklas both make appearances in The Man Who Ate Too Much, and Birdsall points out that the majority of people he spent time with were lesbian or gay. They understood how important it was for him to publicly conceal his sexuality, even as his long-term partner, the architect Gino Cofacci, lived with him for more than twenty years. As far as his readers and fans knew, he was single.
Beard remained closeted until the very last years of his life, when he came out in the revised version of his memoir Delights and Prejudices, published in 1981. The image he projected before that, helped along by publicists, was almost cartoonish: a large-proportioned, bald, fussy bachelor with a singular obsession and no connections, like a character in a fairy tale. “James built a myth of himself as a man so focused on eating that nothing else mattered,” Birdsall explains. “It was easier to paint himself as a single man intent on solitary conquests of food.” Any question of his sexual orientation was transformed into a charming foible. An ad for his television program The James Beard Show appeared in Variety in December 1965 with a closeup of his face under the heading “Ladies’ Man,” playing on his public image as the opposite while signaling that his intended audience was housewives.
The Man Who Ate Too Much unsparingly dismantles the mythology of the jolly asexual bachelor gastronome. According to Birdsall, Beard was often lonely, insecure, and depressed. He had trouble sleeping, to the point that he sometimes dozed in the middle of a party—“blacking out in his chair provided a rare bit of rest.” In his later years, when his relationship with Cofacci had moved from romantic to platonic, Beard had a pattern of chasing much younger men, often using his fame to draw them in. “He was always looking for the next younger man to help and perhaps pursue—hoping to conquer him emotionally,” Birdsall writes. He describes several occasions when Beard’s flirtations cross the line into what today would be called harassment, including two incidents of Beard inviting young men seeking professional advice to his private rooms, where he met them in an open bathrobe. According to Birdsall, Beard didn’t go further than that—he closed his robe when it became apparent that neither man was interested in him sexually.
What might have seemed harmless to Beard is difficult to look past today, after the Me Too movement and the slew of harassment revelations that followed, several of them against celebrity chefs. Birdsall doesn’t dwell on either incident, but he notes that one of the men, Carl Jerome, whom he describes Beard forcibly kissing, went on to work for him for several years; of the second, a young restaurant worker named Michael Butusov who had gone to Beard for advice about finding work as an apprentice pastry chef, he concludes, with a somewhat alarming note, presumably from Beard’s perspective, “The boy had to learn how the world worked—the truth that need was what kept it grinding.”
The Man Who Ate Too Much is a nuanced and absorbing portrait of an imperfect man, one who reshaped the way several generations of Americans thought about cooking and turned the lens of culinary appreciation away from canned truffles, Swiss Gruyère, and other ingredients imported from Europe and toward Kentucky ham, California wines, and the bounty of local farm stands. Beard helped build American food media into what it is today, and who and what it celebrates. His legacy is kept alive through the work of the James Beard Foundation, which awards medals every year to the country’s best chefs, restaurants, and food writers in a ceremony known colloquially as the Oscars of the food world. Beard’s name is a literal institution, one that seeks to perpetuate his vision of playfulness in the kitchen and attention to the riches of American cookery.
Last year the James Beard Foundation canceled its annual awards for both 2020 and 2021, citing the devastation that the Covid-19 pandemic had wrought on restaurants. Behind the scenes, the foundation was also grappling with allegations of harassment and abuse leveled against some of their nominees, as well as the realization that, in the midst of nationwide protests against police brutality toward Black people, there were no Black winners in any of the restaurant and chef categories. One chef, Jessica Koslow of Sqirl in Los Angeles, took herself out of the running after facing backlash for allegedly serving customers moldy jam and claiming credit for employees’ recipes. Former employees of the foundation also came forward with stories of pay disparities and a lack of diversity in the organization’s leadership. Faced with a shifting consensus about what behavior from chefs is acceptable and what equity means in the culinary world, the foundation is reassessing its criteria.
Beard’s legacy is complicated. Among the many merits of Birdsall’s biography is the extent to which it illuminates not just the importance of this foundational American chef, but also the enduring force of his prejudices and delights.