Food & Drink

The Man Who Ate Too Much

John Birdsall excavates the queer life of James Beard

The Man Who Ate Too Much
You probably know more about the James Beard Awards than the man for whom they’re named. (Courtesy of W.W. Norton and Company)

In last year’s fact-packed documentary, Julia, viewers learn every last darn thing about the celebrated television chef, Julia Child. Her life turns out to be an open book. The new HBO series, also called Julia, imagines her private persona and provides the same sense of intimacy that Meryl Streep performed in Nora Ephron’s film, Julie and Julia (2009). In this new iteration, the British actress Sarah Lancashire (Last Tango in Halifax) asserts Child’s identity without overdoing that familiar, trilling accent. In equally rationed out portions, she expresses Child’s hesitancy and self-doubt, as well as her verve and ambition.

The series revisits the arc of Child’s stardom, beginning with the origin story of her television career. Julia slows her biography down to the culinary equivalent of a long-simmering stew. Each moment is rich and perspiring with earthiness and good taste. With decades of her fabled cooking shows still accessible via streaming, alongside this show, you’d think that Julia Child’s mythology would have reached a saturation point in this country’s popular imagination. But when Lancashire shows up at the WGBH station with a chocolate almond cake, we understand that Julia will serve up scene after scene of comfort food and comfort viewing.

Part of Child’s mythology asserts that she was the original, the primogenitor, the Eve of television chefdom. But in the pilot episode of Julia, set in 1961,while she and her husband, Paul, are dining out, he mentions the name James Beard. At the time, Beard was a nationally known, well-regarded cookbook author. His television show, I Love to Eat, started airing in 1946 on NBC. But who remembers it? Now he’s known to the general public, if at all, as the face of a coveted food award. Why hasn’t Paul Giamatti or some other beloved Hollywood actor brought Beard’s name to prominence in the way that Julia Child’s is now?  

In John Birdsall’s recent biography of James Beard, The Man Who Ate Too Much, he doesn’t set out to rehabilitate or malign Beard’s reputation. One of Birdsall’s projects as a food writer is to make queer lives visible and to give credit where credit has been purposefully or lazily erased. Birdsall takes a subatomic approach in charting the details of Beard’s youth, personal and professional lives. He writes from a first person omniscient point of view—as if, after years of research, he’d traveled back in time to inhabit Beard’s closeted consciousness.

But Birdsall has an advantage over his subject. With the benefit of hindsight, the author provides the historical, homophobic, 20th Century American context that contributed to the more troubling aspects of Beard’s character. Unlike Julia Child, Beard, the man, was a complicated figure rather than a beloved one. The Man Who Ate Too Much is, in parts, a product of discovery, an account of Beard’s enduring influence, and the excavation of a gay man’s troubled life.

Published in the January 2014 issue of the magazine, Lucky Peach, Birdsall’s essay, “America, Your Food Is So Gay,” was the genesis of the biography. In it, he cites “three gay guys” who would become the “architects of modern food in America.” Between Richard Olney, Craig Claiborne and James Beard, it was Beard that Birdsall couldn’t stop thinking about. Of the three men, he said, “Beard had the most creative influence on American food.” Birdsall found his particular message to be brilliant in many ways. American food writers in the mid-part of the last century were enamored with French cuisine. Beard found a way to present French country dishes as if they were American inventions. Birdsall explained that he could take a cassoulet, tweak it and then write a book about casseroles. “He was taking the principles and some of the techniques, changing the ingredients, to take French bourgeois cuisine and turn it into American home cooking.”

For Birdsall, Beard’s creative influence was just as compelling as the distressing aspects of his personal life. “He was a thrilling, tragic figure, and I couldn’t stop thinking about James.” In an anecdote, he recounts in “America, Your Food Is So Gay,” Birdsall tells the story of someone who happened to be a former co-worker of his, an aspiring baker, who turned to Beard for advice. When the young man arrived at Beard’s hotel suite, the older man appeared in a robe but naked underneath. The Harvey Weinstein parallels are unavoidable. Birdsall comes to a startling conclusion, “That was the essence of Beard’s food: draped in a respectable Sulka robe that was always threatening to drop to expose unashamed hedonism.”      

The Man Who Ate Too Much expands on this idea but doesn’t devolve into a shaming exposé. Remember when being gay was a punishable offense in America? Remember when it wasn’t legal for gay couples to marry? Birdsall isn’t an apologist for Beard’s destructive behavior, but he skillfully reminds the reader that Beard’s public persona was a construct, in a not-so-distant era, upon which his reputation and career were reliant. Living a closeted life does psychological damage to the famous and unfamous alike. 

“As I was writing one of the drafts of the manuscript, the Harvey Weinstein news broke,” Birdsall recalled. He was in the midst of telling a similar story, of “a famous, powerful figure who used his power and influence, in part, to sexually abuse or assault younger people around him.” That toxicity is a tougher sell than Julia Child’s chocolate cakes and roast chicken dinners. “When the hardcover came out, some of the pushback I received was against revealing too much and tarnishing this great figure,” he said. The post-World War II generation found Beard to be a comforting, charming presence from their mother’s kitchen. By revealing that Beard’s sexuality was, at times, predatory, some readers complained that Birdsall had gone too far.

“I would have loved to have met him,” Birdsall said. “By all accounts, he was very charming, except for the last decade of his life.” Birdsall explained that while he was writing the book, he felt exhilarated by certain details of Beard’s life, but he also felt anger and sorrow. “I had gotten very close to the mind of someone who had a lot of self-hatred and self-doubt.” Birdsall finished the biography feeling conflicted about Beard. “I felt the responsibility of telling his story in a way that hadn’t been told before, revealing things about him that were very difficult to face.” Ultimately though, he loves what’s good about Beard and sad that he’s a “forgotten figure who’s not really acknowledged for his influence on a whole generation of chefs.”

The food media ecosystem has changed since 2016 when he was first circulating the Beard book proposal. “Since then, conversations around queer food culture and trans identity have really become more public and more urgent,” Birdsall said. When he was researching and writing the manuscript, the strain of Beard’s queerness became an unanticipated but central part of the book. He felt briefly apologetic about it. “I feared that a book about queerness and food would only appeal to a niche audience.” A few publishers echoed that fear. Notably not Norton, who published the book.

This shift in the food media culture even impacted the James Beard Foundation. Birdsall notes that the awards were suspended two years ago. “They looked at the systemic race and gender bias that had been built into their awards process.” These upheavals are still underway, but the former East Bay Express food writer believes that, “It’s opened the possibility for a broader readership for a book that does center queerness,” even if that queerness can be ugly and problematic.

While Julia Child has her many days in the sun, The Man Who Ate Too Much has been optioned for a film adaptation. Food TV may have forgotten about James Beard, but he may be right-sized, and polarizing enough, to hold our gaze on a movie screen.

The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard by John Birdsall, john-birdsall.com, is now out in paperback.

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