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 flawsand, 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 arton 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 friendsand 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: Yeahthat 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 wayeven 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 medium.com/@luckypeach/america-your-food-is-so-gay-274700774755.&; 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 culturebut 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 realizedand 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 industryand 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 motherwho 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 wayat 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 livesso 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 lifewhat 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 goodall 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 responsibilitynot 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 historyespecially 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 surprisingand 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: YeahI 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 livesfor 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 wasand 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 successdefining 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 admiringlybut 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 mepolitical and social change, and a bridge between generations.
More about John Birdsall is at John-Birdsall.com .