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James Beard and the joys and pains of gay identity

James Beard
(Courtesy of Clark Wolf)

To many chefs, restaurateurs, writers and lovers of food, James Beard is solely a bald, smiling icon on awards bestowed by the foundation that bears his name. His once-outsize influence on food in America had begun to contract well before his death in 1985, but for half of the 20th century, Beard’s culinary career included the authoring of books and articles, early TV shows, teaching and catering. He was dubbed the “dean of American cookery.” He seeded our modern food obsession with the notion that valuing the ingredients and recipes grown and grafted in our own soil — rather than always looking elsewhere, which in his era particularly meant France — might profoundly sustain us.

Like the country and time that produced him, Beard was a snarl of complexities. John Birdsall traces the knotted threads in his new biography, “The Man Who Ate Too Much,” contextualizing the intricacies with a novelistic rendering of Beard’s life. It begins with pastoral scenes of boyhood summers along the Oregon seaside: “Below him in the hollow was a low thicket where wild iris, Indian paintbrush and flowering currant grew, and native strawberries stretched in angled chains across a mix of dirt and sand.”

As Beard’s decades and Birdsall’s prose progress, the chronicles move to cities and grow denser and darker. Born in 1903 and trained in the theater, young Beard strains to find his place in the world; his footing came from connections he made as a partner in a catering company (Hors d’Oeuvre Inc., a name as if out of a script), which led to books and magazine assignments. By the mid-1940s he was considered a national authority on food. The portrait depicts America’s shifting tastes as Beard hustles to make a living — in the beginning, for example, he navigates the high and low, hawking frozen vegetables and writing about an outdoor grilling party in Palm Beach, Fla., for Gourmet.

Birdsall gave body and soul to the book’s research: At its end there are 59 pages of meticulously detailed source materials, full of extra details and rich asides; the single-mindedness of their collection summons images of Claire Danes’ character on “Homeland” assembling her manic, color-coordinated wall of notes.

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John Birdsall is the author of "The Man Who Ate Too Much," a new biography of James Beard.
John Birdsall is the author of “The Man Who Ate Too Much,” a new biography of James Beard.

The rendering is compassionate: Beard comes across as a pioneer worthy of admiration, even if at the end of his life he seems haunted — a ghost in his own body, encircled but rarely seen.

He also isn’t let off easy. Through Birdsall’s view, Beard can be bitchy and a user. His unedited copy was often “atrocious and messy”; impossible book deadlines led him to self-plagiarize and sometimes lift others’ recipes without credit.

“There were seven different Jameses,” said Birdsall in an Oct. 10 conversation online with my colleague Ben Mims, hosted by Now Serving L.A. Birdsall and I discussed one of Beard’s many identities: his fraught life as a gay man, a theme in the book that Birdsall examines with a jeweler’s exacting and loving gaze.

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The interview was edited for clarity and length.

Your Lucky Peach article, “America, Your Food Is So Gay,” published in 2013, set the stage for your reflections on James Beard (and won a Beard award — meta). What was it about his life and his story that compelled you to dig deeper and write the biography?

Related to the Lucky Peach piece was a nostalgia for my gay “uncles,” Pat and Lou. It was driven by the way that they lived: their house, what they ate, how they cooked, how they entertained and the way they held their cocktails. I always had a longing for that kind of moment. And in writing “America, Your Food Is So Gay,” it was really the first time that I uncorked the bottle and let myself feel all of it. And for whatever reason, I felt a strong association to James Beard with my uncles’ sensibility.

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And then it turns out their life story is part of that incredible other 20th century migration — of queer people in America from places like the Midwest, including Missouri, where Pat and Lou were both from, to places where people could carve out lives for themselves: San Francisco or New York or Chicago. Those things together made James Beard someone who I could look to as the subject of an epic story.

I felt sad at the book’s end. Beard comes across as a tragic figure in many ways. I mention this because, in discussing your uncles, it reminds me that in Lucky Peach you described how Pat died first, and his family came and claimed all his belongings, and Lou’s story had its own tragic arc. For a lot of men in Beard’s generation, loneliness and isolation and excommunication were part of being gay.

I mean, that’s true. I didn’t put this in the story, but Lou wrestled with his grief and started drinking a lot afterward. My mom, who had been his best friend, had to distance herself from it, maybe partly to save me and my brother from someone she saw as not being in a good place. But, yes, James Beard is absolutely a tragic figure, and I felt all of the struggles that he went through — and there were a lot of them.

A big part of my research was understanding the queer experience in America, especially in the two decades after World War II. I wasn’t used to thinking about it this way but gay people were really an oppressed minority — there was a brutal system of oppression. Like all civil rights movements it was hard, but I think queer civil rights had to contend with this extra layer of internalized shame. Many people lived with not only fear of being exposed and having their lives ruined but this overwhelming sense that who they were was not right.

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Pretty much all of the literature that bubbled out into the mainstream about queer experience was tragic. I just watched the remake of “The Boys in the Band” on Netflix recently. I was struck by how much misery was just assumed, and taken for granted, by gay people. There could be moments of intense joy and bonding behind doors. But this orientation meant that you were doomed — that no matter how much happiness you carved out, at some point you were going to have to pay a price.

I see it in James Beard to a certain extent, that happiness was a compromise in some way. I think it partly explains the many myths and lies he told about himself. It was his instinct to hide. And not just from a practical sense — you know, “The general public can’t know who I am because I won’t be able to sell cookbooks.” I’m not sure he felt he deserved happiness. And in his later years, when he was more physically frail, I don’t think he was really able to push away the depression.

He was aware in the 1980s that his impact had been eclipsed, especially in American food media, because figures like James Beard and Julia Child weren’t the interesting, sexy stories anymore. It was the time of young, hot restaurant chefs.

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What resonates about Beard’s story today? It’s obvious to anyone who follows your work and your presence on social media that you’re awake to the moment of reckoning in food culture. How did that play into how you shaped the book?

Once I started looking at James Beard, I felt that not only has he been overlooked but that he’s a much more contemporary figure than Julia Child or M.F.K. Fisher or even Craig Claiborne. He was someone interested in expressing identity through food. The irony, of course, is that he’s someone who couldn’t be authentic in his own identity.

I’m thinking of the summer in 1956 when James [who was in Spain to work on what became an aborted book on wine] sneaks away to Barcelona and meets up with a friend from the States who is gay, and they have dinner at a restaurant called Los Caracoles. They’re essentially sitting on the sidewalk. He recounts the night to [Pasadena-based food writer and friend] Helen Evans Brown, and he’s very careful about what he says, but he’s excited. And then he writes to [his trusted, bisexual agent] John Schaffner, and he’s specific about his excitement in the fusion of sexual energy and food and the city’s street scene. He wants to write about this so badly, the feeling of that street corner and the hustlers walking by and seeing Tennessee Williams cruising, like, everyone.

But of course any editor or publisher will want a specific thing from James Beard that doesn’t include what’s most exciting to him. So there’s always this tension in James about trying to express identity — to be honest and also navigate the realities of writing articles and selling books.

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Author John Birdsall
(Bart Nagel)

In our current generation we have Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” and New Yorker profiles of David Chang. We recognize complicated, ambivalent, nuanced characters in food. James is absolutely that, and a lot of his contemporaries were just … not. What I’d call a chef’s “vision” or a food writer’s vision — so much is based now in biography, and it wasn’t previously. The exception would be M.F.K. Fisher, who was a literary figure, whereas James Beard was a populist.

What’s extraordinary about James is that in 1956 he starts offering cooking classes in his house. There’s so much about his home life that he has to wall off, and yet here he is inviting people into his [actual] home. It’s a complicated openness.

What do you think about how the public relates to gayness in male culinary figures today?

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Um, there’s really a lot of the same, I have to say.

I agree with you.

Yeah. If we look at Antoni [Porowski] from “Queer Eye,” there was adulation in the gay community. But in the gay food world, including gay food Twitter, the reaction was very harsh, like: “This guy can’t cook. He’s just a pretty boy pretending to know something about food.” There are these cultural assumptions about younger gay men, and he had to work hard to establish credibility. Something underlying in that moment seemed incredibly backward: After everything that’s happened in the gay civil rights movement and evolving consciousness and marriage equality, we’re still in a backward place. Gay men have a lot of internalized homophobia that still binds us.

I do think Ted Allen is a much more interesting figure — an out gay food personality who wrote for Esquire, had a male voice but not an exclusively queer voice, who could speak to straight men as well. I’d like to point to Julia Turshen and Nik Sharma, whose queerness is perfectly integrated in their work and informs their cooking in ways I can recognize.

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I’m struck now when June comes around at how unsophisticated the conversation is — that James Beard has been enlisted as a figure for Pride Month, which kind of blows my mind [laughs]. He had a really problematic gay identity that wasn’t about marching and waving on a float.

I think the clearest picture I got of James at his most relaxed and comfortable and gayest was a first-hand account through Andrew Zimmern. It ended up being an endnote in the book, but Zimmern’s father, Robert, was gay and divorced Andrew’s mom early in his childhood.

Robert was with a man, Andre, for 40 or 45 years, until Andre died. Robert was also a friend of James Beard and lived a few blocks from his house in the West Village. On weekends, when James was in town and before Robert and Andre, who loved sports, might go to a basketball game at Madison Square Garden, they’d swing by James’ house for brunch. Andrew was an only child who got dragged along to these open houses. But Andrew said that his model of stable, loving relationships were the gay couples he encountered during Sunday brunch while Jim Beard was pulling breast of veal roasted in a copper pan out of the oven.

Andrew was even able to connect how it improved the food life of New York City. In these salons that James held, people would bring incredible foods from all over the city to him (particularly as his health faded). James might write about them in his syndicated column. It helped put New York on the map as a place of extraordinary food at a time when the city struggled with its public image. James talked about the joy of finding incredible, diverse cooking all around you if you knew where to look.

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For me that really tells the story of the way gay people constructed lives in cities — and how they celebrated those lives with food.

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