About a month ago, my husband Christopher and I were invited to dinner at my in-laws — our first dinner party since the world fell apart last year. While enjoying my father-in-law’s justly renowned eggplant Parmesan, I chatted with the romantic interest of Christopher’s step-sister.
Him: “What do you do?”
Me: “Not work, please. As a sideline, I’ve been doing some writing. I’m working on a review of the new James Beard biography.”
Him: “Bill Rhode was my grandfather — he may be in the book.”
Me: “Why, yes, he is.”
I was, at that moment, rereading The Man Who Ate Too Much, John Birdsall’s sympathetic but unsparing biography, published in October. Beard was a larger-than-life character. His work was foundational to a uniquely American post-war food culture, as well as to the media industry that came to chronicle it. Emerging from an isolating pandemic year, I can’t believe that the first new person I meet puts me within two degrees of James Beard. I’m not sure how to read that omen.
In the 1940s, it was with Bill Rhode, and Rhode’s sister Irma, that Beard formed the catering company Hors d’Oeuvre, Inc., an enterprise that attracted the attention of the New York food world and transformed James Beard from failed stage actor to “dean of American cooking.” Rhode was one of the stepping stones in Beard’s early career: At the height of the company’s success, Beard published its recipes without attribution as Hors D’Oeuvre and Canapes With a Key to the Cocktail Party. Both success and plagiarism were hallmarks of Beard’s career.
Birdsall dives deeply into the complexities of Beard’s upbringing, private self, and public persona. Beard was gay (as was his mother), and Birdsall chooses a queer lens for his book. He combines biography with cultural analysis, tracking one gay man’s path navigating a post-war American society that was virulently anti-gay and actively policing gender norms.
It also chronicles the birth of America’s food culture, with its attendant midwives, prophets, and priests. It was a gloriously messy birth, to say the least, complete with backbiting, recipe stealing, cultural appropriation, self-promotion, industrial sell-outs, and marginalized voices.
Birdsall’s account is a pleasure to read. The language can be lyrical — a ham’s “goading tang of rot” comes to mind. He chronicles the ways in which Beard’s enthusiasm for food was nurtured by his mother, a one-time hotelier who lived “as if provisioning a great house.” In the Beard household, gustatory pleasure stood in place of emotional nourishment: an only child, Beard was close to neither his mother nor his father.
The biography’s romantic opening scene recounts a precocious young Beard with his mother on their annual journey by train from Portland to the Oregon Coast, where they spent summers. Installed in a small cottage, his mother catered parties while Beard navigated the sand dunes on his own. Birdsall’s description of the “shy, vulnerable summer Dungeness crabs buried at the margins of the beach” could equally describe Beard.
Many colorful characters — known and unknown — appear throughout the book. No reader can remain unmoved by the vivid early food memory of Jue-Let, a family servant and Beard’s “Chinese godfather.” In a tender, often cited scene, Jue-Let nurses the lonely boy, feverish with malaria, spoon-feeding him cold jellied chicken broth. Later, evoking a completely different kind of food memory, the reader can hardly resist a chuckle when reading Beard’s account of his obstreperous friend, the cookbook writer Alice B. Toklas, who refuses to dine facing a view so as not to be distracted from the meal before her.
Although his acting career fizzled, Beard remained as much a performer as a cook. He made food accessible, moving away from the technique-based precision of classical French cuisine. He simplified and adapted recipes for fresh, locally available ingredients. No purist, he hawked the newest time-saving inventions — frozen foods, for example — in order to earn a living and propel forward what we would now call his brand. As Birdsall observes, Americans felt a kinship with a man who would gladly mix a soufflé with his hands rather than quibble over which fork to use.
But Beard also performed a public identity that threaded the needle of acceptability — his brand concealed as much as it revealed. Beard lived within a wide circle of queer people who were known to each other but largely circumspect in public, their loves and passions reserved for the relative safety of private spaces. In Birdsall’s account, food — with all its narratives and rituals — was the acceptable vehicle for expression, often lavish, of passions and cravings that otherwise remained hidden.
Beard was uniquely American — a riot of contradiction. In the midst of the pandemic, diving into Birdsall’s biography is like surfacing in a long-lost, longed-for country, one in which food — its preparation, sharing, and legacy — is one of the primary currencies of human connection. After a year of taking meals in isolation, I found myself finally surrounded by family; before me, dishes of lovingly prepared food. It felt wonderful — strange and familiar. And just beyond the Barolo sat a man only two degrees of separation from Beard himself. The omen of this first pandemic dinner bodes well.