cover image The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard

The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard

John Birdsall. Norton, $35 (496p) ISBN 978-0-393-63571-3

Legendary cookbook author James Beard (1903–1985) remade the American palate while carefully hiding his homosexuality, according to this zesty biography. Food writer and cookbook author Birdsall (Hawker Fare) styles Beard the Walt Whitman of 20th-century cooking: he championed fresh, local, seasonal fare against processed and frozen foods, and pioneered New American cuisine by applying French cooking methods to simple American classics. (He invented the gourmet hamburger while running a hamburger stand in Nantucket in 1953, and wrote groundbreaking works on cocktail hors d’oeuvres and outdoor cooking.) In Birdsall’s colorful portrait, Beard is a larger-than-life figure with a six-foot-three-inch, 300-pound bulk, a charisma developed from theater training, and the Rabelaisian tag-line “‘I love to eat!’”; on the shadier side, he padded books with previously published recipes and plagiarized some from other authors. Birdsall highlights Beard’s homosexuality, which he kept closeted until late in life to avoid alienating mainstream readers while subtly negotiating the fraught gender politics of men in kitchens. Birdsall’s narrative offers a tangy portrait of the backstabbing world of post-WWII food writing along with vivid, novelistic evocations of Beard’s flavor experiences (“The ham was salty and pungent. Its smokiness and moldy specter would linger as the first taste of the coast”). The result is a rich, entertaining account of an essential tastemaker. Photos. (Oct.)