Windy City Media Group Frontpage News


home search facebook twitter join
Gay News Sponsor Pre-order Book!
Pre-order Book!



BOOKS Author examines James Beard's life in 'The Man Who Ate Too Much'
by Andrew Davis

This article shared 916 times since Sun Jan 24, 2021
facebook twitter pin it google +1 reddit email

Any established person in the food/restaurant industry or true foodie has surely heard of James Beard (1903-85), who many feel revolutionized cuisine in the United States more than any other individual.

In The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard, author John Birdsall dives into the life of the openly gay icon. Showcasing the results of exhaustive research, Birdsall examines Beard's life from his childhood in Oregon to his times in Paris and New York City, and reveals a man of winning qualities, major flaws—and, yes, incredible appetites.

Windy City Times: John, you have connections to Chicago.

John Birdsall: Yes. I lived in Chicago for about six or seven years. My husband grew up on the South Side. We met in San Francisco and, a couple of years later, we moved there because my husband wanted to. This was in the '90s.

WCT: So what did you think of Chicago back then?

JB: I thought it was great. I had lived in the San Francisco Bay area my entire life, so I didn't know anyplace else. I had the provincial attitude of San Francisco being the center of the universe; then I moved to Chicago and said, "Oh, my God. This is a real teeming city with lots of culture, theater and art—on a scale San Francisco couldn't possibly support.

And I have to say that one of my most amazing experiences was during Pride. We watched the parade go through Boystown and we gathered in the park later with some friends—and got to take in the vast diversity of Chicago. But then I realized how weirdly segregated Chicago was.

WCT: And still is… Also, FYI, Boystown has undergone a name change, to Northalsted.

JB: Oh, good. I remember back when I was there, and living on the North Side, there were discussions in that neighborhood from non-queer people who lived in the area, who complained about the noise coming from the clubs. I was looking through some old papers and found a letter I wrote to the Chicago Tribune when the pylons went up; there were some homophobic opinion pieces, so I wrote an angry letter about the level of homophobia in the Tribune.

WCT: And speaking of anger, when you pitched [to Lucky Peach magazine] about writing a series on closeted gay men male food writers who defined 20th-century cuisine, you said in The Man Who Ate Too Much that your "stimulus was rage." Why rage?

JB: Yeah—that was a word I really thought about for a long time. I tried "injustice," "disappointment" and all that.

I started my work life as a restaurant cook in San Francisco in 1983 and, even then, I felt like I was a second-class citizen and that gay people were treated that way—even in places with supportive, progressive owners and management. But this sense of rage built up and it sort of came out in this 2013 piece I wrote called "America, Your Food Is So Gay." [Editor's note: The article can be read at; I didn't have much time to revise, but there were a lot of built-up repressed feelings there. At the time, Lucky Peach was a print-only magazine, and it was really a document of chef culture—but it seemed like the voices of LGBTQ people who had done so much hadn't been acknowledged. I felt this real sense of anger that we were invisible.

When I felt that piece, I told the editor I felt really proud because I was able to "gay up" Lucky Peach. [Laughs] And I ended up striking a chord, which I hadn't realized—and I started hearing from people in the industry, both chefs and food writers, who felt a similar sense of erasure. So I felt that what I wrote and what happened after that [generated] this energy from this repressed group in the food industry—and lots of other people started coming out and telling their stories. So it felt like a movement that was correcting a sense of injustice, and I felt like a lot of my writing came from this place of rage.

WCT: This new book is a descriptive look at a complex man. I feel like it could've been 3,000 pages. [It's actually 464.]

JB: Yeah; I had to rein it in a little. My publisher said, "We have to place some boundaries around it, length-wise."

WCT: But, for example, you talk about James and his mother—who you describe as having a "biscuit-dough complexion"—taking a trip on a train to the Oregon coast when he was a kid. Because of your descriptions, the reader feels like he/she/they is practically there.

JB: Yeah. I wanted to write a book that was really immersive that way—at least parts of it. I address this in the book, but I had to do "queer archaeology." In a lot of cases, people destroyed evidence of their personal lives—so I had to take a deep look at clues that queer people left. So, in doing that, I wanted to immerse readers in different periods of Beard's life. I had to do a lot of research to get a flavor of what it was like to be James Beard in different periods of his life—what it looked like or smelled like or tasted like to be in certain places.

He was someone who, in some ways, was trying to give Americans permission to taste, trust their senses and buy ingredients that taste good—all the things we take for granted now. I really wanted to write a book that was sensual, in a way, and immersive.

I felt this tremendous sense of responsibility—not only to reflect Beard's works and accomplishments, but because it's also a story about a man who couldn't be authentic. I felt a real responsibility to try and describe who he really was.

WCT: What was the most surprising thing you found?

JB: There were two things. One was the incredibly complex nature of queer lives at that moment in American history—especially the two decades after World War II ended. They had to make some incredible decisions about their lives; I even had to think about what words they would use to describe themselves, such as "gay" or "queer"—if they had such words to use. It wasn't a world where people even had the luxury to describe themselves. It was private, fractured experience for a lot of people. The complexity was obvious in many ways, but to experience the texture of it was quite surprising—and disheartening. I came away with a deep sense of mourning for those generations of queer Americans.

And I think the other surprising thing was how tragic a figure Beard was. There was so much sadness he carried, especially toward the end of his life. He experienced depression throughout his life and ultimately felt he hadn't been very successful. He just wanted to crawl away and hide and not be remembered.

I had so many complicated feelings. This was my first biography and I felt emotionally bonded to the subject; there were so many emotions. I felt sadness but also anger for some of the horrible things he did, such as plagiarism; they made it hard for me to admire him. I understand why he did some of the things he did, but it was hard to deal with the pain that he caused with the people around him.

WCT: Having complex reactions is not unusual, considering you delved into the life of this complex man.

JB: Yeah—I found myself crying sometimes and then wanting to walk away at other times. But, like I said, I felt a very great responsibility.

WCT: Ultimately, what would you like the reader to take away from this book?

JB: One thing would be for queer readers to come away with an appreciation and sensitivity for the complexities and difficulties of these lives—for our ancestors. We take so many things for granted now.

For the general reader, James Beard worked at a time in which bias existed in his industry for decades. I want the general reader to get a sense of the roots of that. James Beard was brilliant and talented in many ways, but he also borrowed and stole from others who were even more brilliant than he was—and he didn't give credit, for a lot of reasons. Also, I wanted to provide a sense of how limited American food was for a couple generations because of editors and publishers who controlled what the message was. So the reckoning we're we going through now is long overdue, of course.

As much as James Beard was a success—defining American food for his generation—[the food he promoted] was very white and Eurocentric. He not include the contributions of women (although he tried to address that). And as much as he taught Americans that they had vital regional cookery, he didn't give credit to people who actually made those things; he wasn't particularly interested in Southern cooking and the cuisine of African Americans. And as much as he felt an affinity with Chinese Americans in the Pacific Northwest, he wasn't interested in talking about that. In the 1970s, someone asked him why he never did a Chinese cookbook, he seemed surprised by the question and said, "I don't know." Basically, he said he took it for granted.

In his 1972 book James Beard's American Cookery, he mentions Christian missionaries working in Oregon, trying to speak to Chinese workers. He talked about a wife cooking essentially southern Chinese food, making adaptations from what she had. He mentions that admiringly—but he never gets into specifics. What was she cooking? That would've been one of the most amazing stories: showing how immigrants adapted. But he didn't do it and I don't think publishers would've been interested in hearing that story.

WCT: If you could ask James one question, what would it be?

JB: Hmmm… I had to make a number of extrapolations about what he thought about the Stonewall rebellion and the rapid movement after that for gay and lesbian civil rights. I found a little bit of that information, and sensed other parts of it. He felt incredibly conflicted about this new age, but I would want to sit down and talk specifically about that. What did that represent for him and his generation? What sort of challenges did that bring? That's a fascinating part of queer history for me—political and social change, and a bridge between generations.

More about John Birdsall is at .

This article shared 916 times since Sun Jan 24, 2021
facebook twitter pin it google +1 reddit email

Windy City Media Group does not approve or necessarily agree with the views posted below.
Please do not post letters to the editor here. Please also be civil in your dialogue.
If you need to be mean, just know that the longer you stay on this page, the more you help us.


Gay News

BOOKS Lambda Literary Awards to take place June 1 2021-05-03
- The 33rd Annual Lambda Literary Awards—which celebrates LGBTQ+ books and authors—will take place Tuesday, June 1, 6-8 p.m. Typically held in person in New York City, this year's Lammys will be presented virtually for the first ...

Gay News

1971: The Chicago Daughters of Bilitis 2021-05-03
Excerpt from Chicago After Stonewall: Gay Lib to Gay Life - An excerpt from Chicago After Stonewall: Gay Lib to Gay Life, a new book by St Sukie de la Croix. You can buy the book from, all good bookstores, and for a signed copy, ...

Gay News

BOOKS Chicago After Stonewall available May 11 2021-04-19
- Chicago After Stonewall: Gay Lib to Gay Life—a detailed account of how LGBTQ's in Carl Sandburg's "City of the Big Shoulders" responded to the Stonewall Riots—will be available May 11. This book pulls together jigsaw pieces ...

Gay News

Trans, non-binary youth influencers launch book collection with "A Kids Book About" 2021-04-12
--From a press release - Chicago, IL - April 12, 2021 - While many teens took e-learning as an opportunity to level-up their gaming skills, a group of young people chose instead to write a collection of books about their lives. ...

Gay News

WORLD Court rulings, trans kids' books, activist dies, Naomi Campbell 2021-03-07
- A Chinese court upheld a ruling that a textbook description of homosexuality as "a psychological disorder" was not a factual error but merely an "academic view," according to the South China Morning Post. The Chinese LGBT ...

Gay News

Pride and Less Prejudice to host panel on LGBTQ media representation March 20 2021-02-21
- On Saturday, March 20, at 1 p.m. CT, Pride and Less Prejudice (PLP)—which provides free, age-appropriate, LGBTQ-inclusive books to pre-K-3rd grade students in order to foster LGBTQ inclusivity and acceptance—will ...

Gay News

Five Worth Finding: LGBTQ authors, paczki, skin-care items, Keto Mylk 2021-02-05
- —Tempest, by Ryan Meyer ( In Tempest, young LGBTQ writer Meyer departs from the horror themes in his 2018 poetry collection, Haunt. Using fictional vignettes and surreal personal accounts, he ...

Gay News

Research shows racial bias denied social reformer Ada S. McKinley her due in history 2021-01-19
--From a press release - (Jan. 19, 2021; Chicago, Ill.) Newly released scholarly research about Chicago social reformer Ada S. McKinley indicates her contributions to Chicago and to the field of human services have been ignored and marginalized due to her ...

Gay News

'Mombian Database' released 2021-01-13
- Mombian columnist Dana Rudolph has released the Mombian Database of LGBTQ Family Books, Media, and More, with more than 500 books, music albums, movies, games and toys for and about LGBTQ families. The site offers multiple ...

Gay News

BOOKS: The best of 2020 2020-12-23
- You've got a little extra time this month, and you don't want to waste it. You want to read something good, the possibilities are endless, and the best place to begin is with these Best Books ...

Gay News

SHOWBIZ Wentworth Miller, Whitney, lesbian author, Mark Wahlberg 2020-11-16
- Out actor Wentworth Miller said he doesn't want to be involved in a new season of the TV show Prison Break if it happens, according to Deadline. On Instagram, he thanked fans for his support and ...

Gay News

Booksellers launch "Boxed Out" campaign, a look at consumer choices 2020-10-22
--From a press release - (New York, New York) 20% of independent bookstores across the country are in danger of closing. Today, theAmerican Booksellers Association launched the "Boxed Out" campaign to draw attention to the high stakes indie bookstores face this ...

Gay News

BOOK REVIEW Gay Like Me: A Father Writes to His Son 2020-10-22
- By Richie Jackson $24.99; Harper; 163 pages Like father, like son. When you were small, people said you looked just like your dad. As you grew up, they said you had his sense of humor or his temper, you laughed alike, ...

Gay News

MOVIES 'Cicada' flies into virtual film festivals this fall 2020-09-25
- Set in New York City, a queer-centered movie called Cicada is now hitting virtual film festivals and explores complicated relationships with a backdrop of childhood trauma. Ben and Sam meet at a bookstore and a journey ...

Gay News

MOMBIAN True stories, trans tales and more in new picture books 2020-09-16
- New books can be a delightful relief in these days of quarantine. Here are some of the many new LGBTQ-inclusive picture books that just came out last month. (See for even more.) The Fighting Infantryman, ...


Copyright © 2021 Windy City Media Group. All rights reserved.
Reprint by permission only. PDFs for back issues are downloadable from
our online archives. Single copies of back issues in print form are
available for $4 per issue, older than one month for $6 if available,
by check to the mailing address listed below.

Return postage must accompany all manuscripts, drawings, and
photographs submitted if they are to be returned, and no
responsibility may be assumed for unsolicited materials.
All rights to letters, art and photos sent to Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago
Gay and Lesbian News and Feature Publication) will be treated
as unconditionally assigned for publication purposes and as such,
subject to editing and comment. The opinions expressed by the
columnists, cartoonists, letter writers, and commentators are
their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay,
Lesbian, Bisexual and Transegender News and Feature Publication).

The appearance of a name, image or photo of a person or group in
Nightspots (Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times
(a Chicago Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender News and Feature
Publication) does not indicate the sexual orientation of such
individuals or groups. While we encourage readers to support the
advertisers who make this newspaper possible, Nightspots (Chicago
GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay, Lesbian
News and Feature Publication) cannot accept responsibility for
any advertising claims or promotions.








About WCMG      Contact Us      Online Front  Page      Windy City  Times      Nightspots      OUT! Guide     
Identity      BLACKlines      En La Vida      Archives      Advanced Search     
Windy City Queercast      Queercast Archives     
Press  Releases      Join WCMG  Email List      Email Blast      Blogs     
Upcoming Events      Todays Events      Ongoing Events      Bar Guide      Community Groups      In Memoriam      Outguide Categories      Outguide Advertisers      Search Outguide      Travel      Dining Out      Privacy Policy     

Windy City Media Group publishes Windy City Times,
The Bi-Weekly Voice of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans Community.
5315 N. Clark St. #192, Chicago, IL 60640-2113 • PH (773) 871-7610 • FAX (773) 871-7609.