The nonprofit organization that bears his name finds itself under the microscope, and people in the large, and largely insular, world of American hospitality are not thrilled with what they see at the James Beard Foundation. Lack of transparency. Questionable ethics. Executives who seem to value their work over the efforts of their employees.
In reading “The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard,” author John Birdsall’s revealing and often riveting biography of the dean of American cookery, I was struck by some of the parallels between the man and the foundation that he never wanted nor authorized. Beard purposely, and understandably, concealed his life as a gay man during a period when such an orientation came with serious social and professional consequences. But he also plagiarized his peers, was stingy with crediting others for their work on his books and even, on occasion, crossed the line into outright harassment of an assistant.
Birdsall has done a brilliant job of piecing together a life that Beard did much to hide, including by destroying papers that he deemed “too revealing, incriminating, or embarrassing.” Birdsall pores over notebooks, inspects old photos, unearths historic documents, combs through newspaper archives and apparently reads every last word that Beard (or, more likely, his assistants and editors) wrote in his more than 20 published works. Birdsall carefully sources each piece of information, knowing full well that material pulled from Beard’s books can be problematic, given that they deal in mythmaking as much as biography.
Beard was born in Portland, Ore., in 1903, the only child of Mary Elizabeth Jones and John Beard, whose marriage was one of avoidance and resentment. Their son was precocious — he could hold his own in adult company — but lonely. His mother ran boardinghouses, meticulously so, and instilled in him a love of good food, though her preoccupation with cooking might have been a sublimation of her own desires, like it sometimes was for her son. (Birdsall suggests that Elizabeth was a lesbian and once went on a long trip with a young actress.)
A young James Beard wanted to sing and act, and he was well on his way to building up experience at Reed College, a liberal arts school known for its emphasis on academics over athletics or even grades. But then Beard was suddenly, and quietly, expelled in 1921 for what was described as insufficient academic performance. In reality, Beard had a dalliance with the head of the German department, a man who was also co-director of the drama club. Birdsall puts the expulsion — and the professor’s quick departure from campus — into context, suggesting that it was a progressive solution given the anti-homosexual atmosphere at the time in Oregon, including the forced sterilization of men convicted of sodomy.
When his career in theater fizzled, Beard pivoted to food, first as part of a New York catering company where the future face of American cooking toiled anonymously in a basement kitchen. If Beard was angry at the way his business partners, siblings Bill and Irma Rhode, treated him, he got his revenge with his first cookbook, “Hors D’Oeuvre and Canapés,” in 1940. The book drew on his catering experiences, including the publication of company recipes, without a single mention of the Rhodes or their contributions.
The wholesale lifting of recipes would become a recurring pattern in Beard’s professional life, Birdsall writes, though frequently he just repurposed his own (notably he republished more than 100 of his recipes, with slight tweaks, for the 1,000-plus-dish tome “The Fireside Cook Book” in 1949). He seemed to show no remorse when swiping from others. The most egregious example may have come with the publication of the “Complete Cookbook for Entertaining” in 1954, which looted recipes planned for a collaboration between Beard and Helen Evans Brown, a chef and author whom Beard greatly admired. Unaware of Beard’s other book, Brown was furious.
Beard’s growing stature often kept people silent, or publicly silent, when he stepped on their toes. If he wasn’t the dean of American cookery at the time of some of these slights, he was well on his way, amassing books, TV appearances, magazine articles and other recognition that would cement his reputation as the foremost authority on American gastronomy. Beard was large in frame and girth, and his appetites were equally outsize. They also knew few boundaries. Beard was, Birdsall notes, “as much in love with a good club sandwich as he was with veal Oscar.” This folksy anti-elitism was part of Beard’s charm, so different from the French snobbery that dominated fine-dining rooms and alienated much of meat-and-potatoes America.
“More and more, James saw himself as the keeper of food knowledge America had set aside in the name of industrial progress,” writes Birdsall, using Beard’s first name to create intimacy between reader, author and subject. “More and more, he regarded his recollections as a kind of national seed bank of food memory.”
As Beard’s fame grew, so did the flock that gathered around him, often wanting some piece of him. He could wield his power generously, as when he trumpeted the talent of a new American author named Julia Child, who had just co-written “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” But he could also abuse it, as he did one day with an assistant named Carl Jerome, who worked in Beard’s home/cooking school.
“James undid the tie of his robe and opened it, and he was naked underneath,” Birdsall writes. “James went on talking, in the exact same tone he’d used when the robe was closed. He went on casually, calmly talking about some detail of the next day’s class, leaving it up to Carl to decide whether or not to accept this passive offer of a diversion and get closer to the master.” Carl looked away, and the anecdote sounds the final note of the chapter. Birdsall leaves readers to their own thoughts, and these are the ones that leaped to my mind: Famous man. Young apprentice. Open robe. Charlie Rose. #MeToo.
Birdsall, a two-time winner of the prestigious journalism award named after his subject, is often lyrical in his storytelling. His early chapters are so detailed and narrative-driven, they read like a novel. But just as important, he remains clear-eyed throughout the biography: He lets his research lead the way, whether it generates sympathy for Beard or aversion.
A couple of themes quietly undergird much of Birdsall’s book: food as the only safe outlet for Beard’s considerable passions, and Beard’s fear that, if the world really knew him, they wouldn’t love him. After reading “The Man Who Ate Too Much,” I must admit I don’t like many of Beard’s behaviors, but I like seeing a fuller picture of the man who probably tortured himself more than anyone by concealing much of his life.
The Man Who Ate Too Much
The Life of James Beard
By John Birdsall
449 pp. $35