Before the James Beard Awards and the James Beard Foundation, there was the man himself. Beard was the first celebrity chef of the TV era, preaching home cooking and fresh, local food even as frozen TV dinners gained popularity. But he also had to navigate the complexities of being a closeted gay man in a time when the kitchen was considered a place for women. Food writer John Birdsall talks with Dan about his new biography, The Man Who Ate Too Much, which traces Beard’s life from his start at queer cocktail parties in 1930s New York, to his winks to the queer audience as he became more famous, to the eventual need to change his public persona into a professorial bachelor, too obsessed with food to have time for a wife. As we hear, even today, James Beard remains one of the most misunderstood people in the food world.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Can You Dig It" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- "Homefront" by Jack Ventimiglia
- "Burley Cue" by Steve Pierson
- "Birthday Party" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Sweet Summer Love" by Stephen Clinton Sullivan
- "Child Knows Best" by Jack Ventimiglia
- "Minimaliminal" by Jack Ventimiglia
- "Want It Need It" by Max Greenhalgh
Photo via Fales Library/NYU, courtesy of Jonathan Ned Katz.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): At the height of his popularity. How famous was James Beard in America?
CLIP (JOHN BIRDSALL): He was a household personality and his popularity really kind of ratchets up in 1955. A writer for The New York Times dubs him the dean of American cookery. He's really the one person that America looks to has this long historical knowledge about food in America.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): All while being deep, deep in the closet.
CLIP (JOHN BIRDSALL): Yes, absolutely. I mean, deep, deep in the closet at the same time that he's living this very kind of robust, pleasurable gay life in private. Publicly, it's absolutely, absolutely a secret.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies it’s for eaters, I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. If you’ve heard of James Beard, it’s probably because of the James Beard Awards, given out to some of the hottest restaurants, chefs, and cookbooks in the country. They’ve been called the Oscars of the Food World. We’ve actually won a Beard Award, here at Sporkful, because they also give them out to food media.
Dan Pashman: But before there were the awards, there was the man himself. James Beard was the first celebrity chef of the TV era, known for his many cookbooks and his catch phrase, “I Love To Eat!” Sounds like a kindred spirit. Long before Alton Brown or Emeril or even Julia Child, there was James Beard teaching postwar America how to cook. The writer John Birdsall has a new biography about Beard out now, it’s called The Man Who Ate Too Much. Before we get to Beard’s story, I think it’s helpful to know a bit about the perspective John brings to it. He worked in professional kitchens for seventeen years before turning to food writing full time. He’s a gay cis man, and has written a lot about queer figures in the food world, shining a light on those who’ve been overlooked, misunderstood, or erased.
Dan Pashman: For John, the connection between food and queerness goes back to his childhood in a suburb of San Francisco. As a kid, he spent a lot of time with his neighbors Pat and Lou, a gay couple who sort of became surrogate uncles. They were around all the time, and in the early 1970s, they’d babysit John and his brother.
John Birdsall: They became really my parents closest friends, and it was kind of a perilous thing for my parents to do because most of the other neighbors around us really saw Pat and Lou as outcasts. You know, definitely did not approve of their life. And Pat and, Lou, you know, they were quiet about their relationship. There was also a kind of defiance about it. They sort of mirrored like kind of a nuclear family, nuclear couple image of the 1950s where, you know, Pat would go to work every day and Lou would stay home and take care of the house and cook. And everything about them, to me, seemed magical. And one of those really magical things was the way that they cooked and ate, the role that that food played in their life.
Dan Pashman: So give me an example of the kind of thing that Pat and Lou might serve you when there were babysitting you. What would dinner be like there?
John Birdsall: The thing that I remembered most vividly from Lou were these hamburgers that he made and they were just packed with_there were like caramelized onions. He used Grey Poupon Dijon mustard. And then he would sort of crumble and sort of semi melt like blue cheese on top. This thing was towering. It was salty. It was rich. You know, as a 10-year-old boy, I could barely eat a quarter or a third of it, you know, something that would totally make me feel sick but I loved eating it. It would it was such an expression of really everything that I loved about Pat and Lou.
Dan Pashman: John and his family lost touch with Pat and Lou, but he thought of them often as he grew up and started working in restaurants. Homophobia and aggression were the norm in kitchens. The queer people were denied opportunities and targeted for abuse. In one restaurant the running joke was that the salad station, where John worked, was reserved for women and "effeminate". Meanwhile, the chefs responsible for this kind of homophobic kitchen culture were desperately trying to win a James Beard Award, a medal with the face of a closeted gay man on it. That made John angry. These people didn’t know who James Beard was. So, in 2013, he wrote about Beard for the now defunct food magazine Lucky Peach, in an article headlined “America, Your Food Is So Gay”. That article led to the new biography, which is dedicated to Pat and Lou.
Dan Pashman: So, who was James Beard? Well, he was born in 1903 in Portland, Oregon. He was always interested in theater. He attended Reed College in Portland with the hopes of making it as an actor. But in his first year there, he was expelled after being caught having a sexual affair with a male professor. At the time, gay and lesbian people were labeled sexual perverts, newspapers were publicly shaming gay men. And Oregon had a law on the books that all men convicted of sodomy would undergo forced sterilization. While Jame's punishment could have been much worse, it stayed with him.
John Birdsall: It was absolutely terrifying. So in many ways it was the catalyst of his adult life. It was the thing that filled him with fear and shame. So that really confirms his idea that there’s a need to conceal his sexuality.
Dan Pashman: James’s mother, who knew he was gay, helps him out after he’s expelled and her advice shapes the way he goes forward.
John Birsdall: She counsels him to do what he wants to do. She’s very progressive in that sense. But you must play by the rules. It was a very Victorian notion, that one can do what they want in private but you have to play by the rules of society.
Dan Pashman: After being expelled, James travels to England and France, trying to become an opera singer. During this trip, he’s exposed to more permissive gay social scenes in London and Paris. It’s also his first exposure to the way people cook and eat in Europe. In London, he shops at farm stalls and cooks with fresh vegetables, has his first taste of Italian food outside of the U.S. At a boarding house in Paris, he eats boeuf bourguignon. These are places he would return to throughout his life. Those early travels have a real impact but James’s opera career doesn’t work out. In the mid-1930s he goes to New York and he discovers a gay scene there that’s undergoing a transformation.
John Birdsall: Before Prohibition, and even in speakeasies during Prohibition, in a place like NYC there was a pretty thriving community or culture of gay bars. After Prohibition, the door really slams shut. So the state liquor authority has this idea that they’ll put it on individual bar owners to police "lewd" activity on their premises. If there’s even any hint that queer people are being served in these public bars, the owner could lose their license. Something as innocent as one man touching another man’s sleeve in a certain way, this is classified as potentially lewd activity. So the kind of culture of gay bars in NYC ends and what takes its place, especially for affluent men, are private apartment parties, almost like cocktail salons. So it was a safe way for gay men to socialize.
Dan Pashman: In 1937, Beard has given up trying to work in the theater. He’s teaching at a school in New Jersey, barely able to pay rent. Then, through a mutual friend, he meets James Cullum, a wealthy gay socialite living in a large apartment in Manhattan. Beard has already earned a reputation as a great party manager. He would handle the food and drinks at his friends' apartment soirees. Cullum wants to throw the kinds of upscale cocktail parties where gay men can mingle. So, Cullum asks Beard to move into his spare room, and Beard accepts. They were never romantically involved, but now James Beard is running parties for New York’s gay upper crust. And his food is a big hit. He’s making things that are just above and beyond what people are used to seeing.
John Birdsall: One of his kind of famous little snacks is he’ll bread and deep fry quail and serve it with bread and butter sandwiches. Which sounds impossibly rich, especially, I have to say, at a party for gay men. But in 1939, this is very stylish. So it’s cocktail food that’s very elevated.
Dan Pashman: Presumably, these are not the kind of hors d'oeuvres that are being served by suburban housewives in middle America.
John Birdsall: No, no. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: But how do they compare to the kind of hors d'oeuvre that wealthy straight people are serving on Park Avenue?
John Birdsall: Wealthy straight people on Park Ave are hiring caterers who are putting out pretty miserable food but it would have lots of luxury ingredients. Like it would have smoked salmon. It would have caviar. It would have imported French truffles from Cannes. But essentially, they’d be pretty sad canapes and sad sandwiches, things that would sort of weep on a tray.
Dan Pashman: James eventually starts a catering company with another frequent partygoer named Bill Rhode. They start marketing to those rich straight people on Park Avenue. They call the company Hors d’Oeuvre, Inc.
John Birdsall: And it’s really kind of revolutionary food. They’re going to Russian and German bakeries in Yorktown to find special whole-grain breads and pumpernickel breads, instead of using terrible stale white bread. They’re using tongue and imported cheeses and today we would say it’s ingredient-driven.
Dan Pashman: James’s food starts to get some buzz. He takes some of those recipes and publishes his first cookbook, called Hors D’Oeuvre and Canapés, with a Key to the Cocktail Party. Off the success of this book, he publishes a second one, called Cook It Outdoors. And in this book, James’s voice and personality shine through. Here’s John, describing the book, in an excerpt from the biography.
CLIP (JOHN BIRDSALL): "James’s language is playfully and unabashedly queer. He calls a game stew recipe “Game in the Goo” and tosses off words like 'chichi' and 'doodadery' with abandon. His look at cacciatore includes the camp read that, 'Practically everything but a henna rinse has been given the chicken which goes by this name.' What makes James’s voice particularly striking is that barbecue books were supposed to hew to caveman clichés of manliness. Yet, James’s voice subverts the role of the conventional male gourmet of the 1930s. He’s neither the wolf who cooks to impress and seduce women, nor is he the gastronomic hobbyist husband who spends Sunday mounting a complicated glory dish. James’s persona is that of a feminized man in the kitchen. Camp is where James’s charm resides—alongside his power."
Dan Pashman: You, looking back at James’s voice at this point in his career, you see all these queer winks. This use of a camp style. Was he doing that consciously? Did he see these as queer flourishes?
John Birdsall: Yes, I believe that he does. I mean, he’s… throughout his life, he’s both constrained by fears, but you see him sort of constantly pushing the envelope. He’s constantly trying to push the limits of what’s acceptable. And his charm is probably the tension between those things.
Dan Pashman: As he gets into the late 1930s and 40s, James finds space opening up for queer men, just a little. There’s some mainstream acceptance of what’s called pansy culture. Effeminate men who are very refined. There are movie actors like Edward Everett Horton, who plays a stylish, sexually ambiguous character in a lot of films, winking and nodding to an upper class gay culture. Like in the film Top Hat.
CLIP (TOP HAT): Bates insists a square tie is the only one that can be worn with evening clothes. [laughing] A square tie, imagine. I prefer the butterfly
Dan Pashman: James fits into that pansy culture box pretty nicely and uses it to his advantage. In 1946, he makes his first appearance on TV.
CLIP (JAMES BEARD): Good evening. Well, here we are again, and as usual I’m left home to put together supper.
Dan Pashman: Soon James has his own 15 minute cooking show, called I Love To Eat! As I said that would become his catch phrase.
CLIP (JAMES BEARD): Today, we’re going to make chili con carne and we’re going to discuss sponge cakes.
Dan Pashman: Unfortunately, because this show is from so long ago, there’s almost no archive of it available. At the time James debuted on TV, the country was entering an era of convenience foods, with TV dinners and frozen food capturing the culinary imagination. But he preaches a different kind of American cooking.
CLIP (WOMAN): Have you ever used, what they call a filler, in your hamburger?
CLIP (JAMES BEARD): What are you talking about?
CLIP (WOMAN): Kind of a large patty.
CLIP (JAMES BEARD): What do you mean a filler?
CLIP (WOMAN): When people talk...I'm not accusing you. But you know how people often put extra ingredients into hamburgers, a filler.
CLIP (JAMES BEARD): Oh, you mean cereal?
CLIP (WOMAN): Yeah, that type of thing.
CLIP (JAMES BEARD): No. Nu-uh. I'm a purist.
CLIP (WOMAN): Mm-hmm.
John Birdsall: James is telling readers to maybe seek out a farmer at the edge of the city who’s raising chickens, who are allowed to run around, because the flavor will be better. It shouldn’t be that hard to find them. Or to grow herbs themselves. To even grow baby corn on a fire escape, if you lived in NYC, just so you have the pleasure and you know what it’s like to take those tiny ears of corn and boil them right after you pick them and taste how sweet they are.
Dan Pashman: At the same time he’s espousing this philosophy, James is also allowing his personality as a gay man to come through, albeit in coded ways. In one episode, he makes roast chicken with herb butter under the skin. He ad-libs the line, “Chicken, I’ve got you under my skin.” He tells the viewers the best way to mix the herbs into the butter is with your fingers and he says, “The female contingent is always afraid to get fingers into the slurp.” John Birdsall sees all of these lines as winks.
John Birdsall: If you were a closeted viewer...yeah, in the 1940s, you would know the code. There was an expression called, “I’m dropping hat pins.” And if you were gay and you were in conversation with someone and you suspect they might be gay, you would “drop hatpins” and see if they picked them up. So the experience of being gay in America at this time, was really having to use coded language to see where you stand. James is doing it on TV, which is risky but he somehow manages. There’s some combo of his... the way he looks physically and the way he acts and what he’s cooking that kind of comes together magically in this convincing way.
Dan Pashman: James was 6’3”, 300 pounds, bald, and pear-shaped.
John Birdsall: Cameras really loved him. Newspaper and magazine editors really loved him because he had such an unusual appearance. Somebody who looks so unselfconscious about what and the amount that they eat and drink is really a curiosity. It’s a novelty.
Dan Pashman: James himself seemed to understand that he had to find ways to get his body to work for him. Here he is in his 70s, reflecting on his career in an interview:
CLIP (JAMES BEARD): I know I had a lot of talent. I really feel, I’m convinced of it. But I was large. I was scarcely beautiful. I had ability but I felt that there was quite a lot of doubts that I would be the greatest star that ever trod Broadway. So I began to think of a profession that I have fun doing, and that’s what led me into the food business.
Dan Pashman: When his first TV show debuts, few Americans have TVs in their homes. They watch him on a TV in a department store window, or at a bar before a boxing match. But as the 1950s progress, that changes. James starts coming into peoples’ homes. He releases The Fireside Cookbook, his first general cookbook with all kinds of foods, appetizers and entrees, desserts. In the post-war era, as America is becoming more affluent and the suburbs are growing, James is articulating an approach to food that’s aspirational, featuring dishes that feel accessible.
John Birdsall: What James did so successfully was go to France, pursue love and identity and sex, and along the way pick up a deep knowledge and appreciation, a kind of yearning for the type of food that he saw there. His genius was to come back to the United States and to plant that on American soil. And not say, as maybe Julia Child would have, that this is french food. Not frame it as French food but to Americanize it. To say this is American food. That’s his greatest achievement, and that’s the thing that fascinates me most about him.
Dan Pashman: One example, in The Fireside Cookbook James has a recipe for “Country Omelette,” with bacon, potatoes, onion, and parsley. It’s basically a French omelette paysanne, or “peasant omelette,” with American bacon swapped in for french salt pork. But the name “Country Omelette” makes it sound like it could be found in any middle class kitchen in America. Then, in 1959, James releases his seminal work, The James Beard Cookbook. It’s another general cookbook and it’s a huge success, a major bestseller. It includes dishes like Braised Beef Bordeaux Fashion, and a simplified French cassoulet, but it also describes how to boil water. It has a picture of James on the cover, which was unheard of at the time. The book vaults him into a new level of fame in the country. But he isn’t a fan of it.
John Birdsall: He hated it because for the reason that he really didn't like kitchen bibles. Throughout his career, his goal is to write books that have personality, that have voice, that have a kind of narrative structure even. That aren’t just like utilitarian collections of recipes. And this is something that American publishers are experimenting with books like this but they really don't sell. Americans are buying kitchen bibles. So depressingly for James, in 1959, his most successful book, the book that really makes him a household name in America, is a book with the type of format that he really can’t stand.
Dan Pashman: He wanted to be able to push people to put in extra effort.
John Birdsall: Yeah, and he wants people to take extra effort. He wants people to taste. He wants people to cook by tasting and to cook with a certain attitude, to cook with, certainly, fearlessness but a certain flair to sort of entertain in a certain way. The irony of that is that while James is doing that, he’s not fully able to be himself.
Dan Pashman: Coming up, we delve more into James’s personal life, including some of the darker aspects of his character. Stick around.
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Dan Pashman: Now, back to my conversation with John Birdsall, author of the new biography of James Beard entitled, The Man Who Ate Too Much. In telling Beard’s story, the book also tracks the ebbs and flows of queer acceptance in America throughout the 20th century. In the 1950s, the Cold War is increasingly dominating the public consciousness. Maintaining traditional gender roles is seen as patriotic. Being queer becomes even more perilous. As James gets a wider audience, he begins working with bigger publishers and editors, who start toning down some of the camp in James’s style, removing some of those hat pins. They essentially work to rebrand him.
John Birdsall: America has a very strange and gendered idea of cooking and who’s allowed to cook, who’s supposed to cook. And so to have a single bachelor cooking, America doesn’t know what to do with such a man. And the safest thing to do with him is to turn him into a professor. To turn him into a single sexless, older avuncular professor, who is so focused on cooking and eating that he can’t possibly have time for romance, love, sex.
Dan Pashman: This becomes James Beard’s public persona. He’s a person who loves to eat so much, he gets so much pleasure from it, it’s almost like, how could he have time for a wife? He’s married to food. This idea is reinforced on the cover of The James Beard Cookbook, where James is seen surrounded by meat.
John Birdsall: And so James is pictured above this octagonal platter that has this sort of glistening pile of sauerkraut and pork products. James himself looks a little shiny and greasy in the photo. And he’s just giving this uninhibited smile. And it just telegraphs that this is a man who’s unafraid of pleasure and unafraid of the consequences of pleasure.
Dan Pashman: In his article for Lucky Peach that inspired this biography, John calls this kind of food, food that is created just for pleasure, “unapologetically, magnificently queer”. I asked him, why is a focus on pleasure, essentially queer?
John Birdsall: In one practical way, as my experience with Lou’s burger kind of taught me, is that food that is decoupled from this conventional notion of family life was startling. And the thing that makes it queer is that it was born in queer experience in the mid 20th century, in part as a challenge to the mainstream culture, mainstream understanding of culture. You know James had a very robust private life of almost exclusively queer friends. He had a food salon at his home in Greenwich Village. He would have these great private brunches on Sundays when he was home, where friends of his, most of them queer, would drop in. And it was this kind of leisurely enjoyment of food that would just go on for hours and hours. And this idea of creating kinship around food with people you aren’t related to and using food this kind of center of social life is something absolutely kind of born in mid 20th century queer experience.
Dan Pashman: There's a discussion I've heard folks having around this question of , "Is there such thing as queer food culture?" There was one gay man that I spoke with who made the case, "Yes, there is because food has always been there when queer people gathering, whether in community or in protest food is there." The other argument, which I heard another gay person put forth was like, "Yes, but to have a food culture you need common ingredients, sort of cooking techniques," that there more of a culinary way of looking at things. I'm curious to hear your thoughts, is there such a thing as queer food culture?
John Birdsall: Well, yes, absolutely, in a historical way. There was this kind of great queer migration in America in the 20th century. People like my uncle Pat and Lou, who came from the midwest and met each other and fell in love in San Francisco. James Beard settling in Greenwich Village in NYC. People could not be themselves in any authentic way in the places where they grew up. Typically with their blood families. So there was this great project in the 20th century of queer people moving to cities, moving to places where it was somewhat safe to be queer, and creating this sense of kinship. And food was a major part of that creation of kinship. It’s new foods that people created after they found or embraced their queer identities. But it’s also food that people brought with them from the places they were. These foods are key to queer identity. They’re filled with joy, they’re filled with pain because they’re reminders of disruption, loss, in many cases being cut off from one’s blood family. Part of the joy of researching James Beard’s life, which wasn’t always easy because there are many contradictions in James’s life, many ugly parts of James’s personality and life, but the thing that gave sort of gave me joy again and again was kind of discovering the ways that James could really be himself in the queer world of people who centered their lives around food.
Dan Pashman: You’ve said Beard could be charming one day, cruel and exploitative the next. Can you give me an example of the cruel and exploitative part?
John Birdsall: It was shocking to me in doing the research for this book in how much material he basically stole from even close friends, people he loved, other food writers. For instance Helen Evans Brown, this great collaborator in the 1950s that wrote an outdoor cookbook. He was devoted to Helen, absolutely devoted to Helen, but did really underhanded things like, you know, kind of use her recipes without attribution, or publish some recipes as his own that they were saving for a book that they were doing together. So his ambition was very ugly. He also, you know, he had extremely complicated feelings about his own body. He had very complicated feelings about his own lovability. And so when he had power, he used some of that power to try and exploit young men into having sex.
Dan Pashman: What John found was that James had a habit of exposing himself to younger men in vulnerable positions, sometimes men who worked for him. He’d be in a bathrobe for a meeting of some kind, open his bathrobe and would have nothing underneath. John says, these men would usually pretend not to have seen what they just saw, and James would close the bathrobe and keep talking, like nothing had ever happened. John knows of one time when James did attempt to kiss a younger employee without his permission.
John Birdsall: [sighs] Many people were devoted to James, either they would forgive him, the ways he disappointed them, that he may have used them. He could be so charming. He mentored so many younger people, gave them careers, introduced them to the New York food world in ways he just really didn’t have to do. But at the same time he exploited people. I see some of his cruelty as really the worst expression of his own feelings of kind of lack of worth. And I feel like he felt in many ways that he was incapable of being loved, and I think there was a lot of bitterness and resentment that went along with that. And unfortunately, he kind of inflicted that on others.
Dan Pashman: Growing up, James was close to his mother, Elizabeth Beard. But his father, John, was largely absent. When James was in his early 20s, he learned that his father had another family with a mistress and that his mother knew about the affair. He also knew that his mother was a lesbian and that the marriage, for her, was just something she had to endure. In 1940, when his father wrote to James to tell him that his mother was dying, it was the first time they had communicated in three years. So James didn’t have strong ties with his biological family. But he made his own family. He met Gino Cofacci in 1956. They were together for 30 years.
John Birdsall: You know, Gino was a difficult type of personality. He had the type of personality that couldn’t coexist with people in social situations. He would say what he thought in social situations, you know like, "This is boring. I’m tired. I want to go." The more I did research, the more I saw James. He used Gino to keep people at arm’s length, like letting Gino doing the work of alienating people.
Dan Pashman: So in the 30s and 40s there was this pansy movement, where it was more acceptable for men to be effeminate or to read that way. And then sort of the 50s, the Cold War comes, and it’s very much like, must be nuclear family. Men must be manly. Then the 60s happen, and in the late 60s you get Stonewall. You get the early parts of the gay rights’ movement. And James lived just down the street from him, Stonewall. When that stuff started happening, what was his take on all of that?
John Birdsall: You know, I never found anywhere where he addresses it specifically, either Stonewall or queer civil rights. But I know that for his generation of kind of successful white men living in Greenwich Village, this was not a cause for celebration. These, mostly men, had spent decades creating a safe, relatively safe workable solution. They lived in the Village partly because it was a safe space for gay men. And something like Stonewall represented an upsetting of everything.
Dan Pashman: James Beard continued to publish cookbooks into the mid 1970s, and was still occasionally appearing on TV, when he himself was in his 70s. He maintained that balance between his public persona and private life. There were certain details from his past that he often referenced in interviews, but one that never came up. His experience at Reed College. Then in 1976, he got a bit of closure. Reed College awarded him an honorary doctorate. No reference was made to his expulsion. It was for his work. James stood onstage, received his degree from the school’s president and wept.
Dan Pashman: When James died in 1985, he left nearly everything to Reed. He left instructions that Gino be allowed to live in the house in Greenwich Village, until Gino died. But even before Gino's death, a group of people in the food world started thinking about how they could preserve James’s legacy, Julia Child among them. John says a Beard protege named Peter Kump, who owned a cooking school, also saw a chance to elevate his own profile. They put a group together, created a fundraiser and bought the house, donating the purchase price to Reed. They renamed it the Beard House and launched the James Beard Foundation, which had a mission of advancing American culinary arts.
Dan Pashman: In 1990, Peter Kump announced the creation of the James Beard Awards, merging several existing food and cooking awards under the foundation’s banner. Today Beard House hosts food industry events, like dinners and cocktail parties. It’s a place where young chefs have a chance to cook for influential people in the food world, and established chefs show off new concepts. And the James Beard Awards happen annually in a giant ballroom on the Hudson River, presented by big corporate sponsors.
Dan Pashman: What do you think James Beard would think about the James Beard Foundation and the James Beard's Awards?
John Birdsall: Well, I think there are parts of the awards that do really express a lot of the work that he did and a lot of the things that he was interested in. You know, the James Beard's Awards, the so-called Oscars of food, [sigh] I think deep down he would have just felt it was all kind of too much. James worked in the realm of home cooking. His focus was not restaurants and it was not professional chefs.
Dan Pashman: Last month, John wrote an article for the Washington Post headlined, “James Beard was anti-elitist. He would hate the awards that bear his name.” He writes that James would be the loudest voice calling for radical change to the ceremony, and would be deeply conflicted about having his name attached to a celebration built on restaurant industry status. This all comes at a time when the Beard Awards are in upheaval. For years, the Foundation has been criticized for mostly honoring white male chefs. The Foundation decided to cancel its awards entirely this year, in part because staff members found out that no Black people had been voted as winners in the restaurant or chef categories. Now, the entire awards process is under review.
Dan Pashman: It seems clear James would have had reservations about a foundation and awards being named after him, his name coming to take on a life of its own. Towards the end of his life, James told one friend he didn’t want a memorial service or celebration, that he only wanted to vanish. Which leads me to one more question for John.
Dan Pashman: In the prologue to the book you write, “This biography excavates the story of Beard that he and those close to him tried to destroy.” I know you talked that he destroyed so many of his letters and papers in attempt to essentially erase the record of his queerness. Did you ever have any reservations about that? I know that you haven’t outed James Beard and it's been known that he was gay. But you’re shining a brighter light on that part of his life than has ever been shined before, bringing that part of his life more front and center that it's ever been before. Knowing that he so much didn’t want that, was that something that you struggled with?
John Birdsall: Not really. Talking with a couple of people who knew James in the 1970s, particularly a man named Carl Jerome who was James’s assistant in his cooking school for about 4.5 years in the 1970s, and Carl was in his early 20s and he was part of this post-Stonewall queer experience where you were just out. There was no separation between your professional life and your private life. You were who you were, and if anyone didn’t like that then too bad, screw them. This was a challenge to James, and so many times with Carl he expresses a desire to come out. And he does so in subtle ways. He dresses differently when Carl comes into his life. He’s wearing blue jeans and t-shirts. Now, I wouldn’t say a leather daddy, but he’s kinda going, in his friend's eyes, he's going in that direction, once he let the tweed slip a little bit. And so I felt very strongly that had he lived in a different time, that James would have definitely come out. I felt that was I was doing in this research and this biography is kind of giving James the dignity of being who he was. Of sort of putting aside the fear and the shame that he lived with for most of his life and that he probably deeply regretted having to live with. And allowing him to breathe freely.
Dan Pashman: That’s John Birdsall. His latest book is The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard. It’s out now. The clips of James Beard in the show were from the 2017 PBS documentary James Beard: America’s First Foodie, and from the 2010 Oregon Public Broadcasting program A Cuisine of Our Own.
Dan Pashman: Make sure you check out last week’s show, in which we explore the story of Nearest Green. He’s the enslaved man who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey. It was Nearest who showed Jack a technique called charcoal mellowing. It was already in use in West Africa, that would become the defining characteristic of Tennessee whiskey. That show is up now.