Fifty years ago, this is how the leading American food authority described its favorite menu for an open house:
“I brought out a large board with different slices of sausage – salami, Polish sausage, whatever I can find on the market that looks good – and a selection of mustard. I also like to have a cheese platter: Swiss Gruyère, a fine cheddar and maybe a brie. And with the cheeses, I serve thinly sliced rye bread, crackers and a fruit bowl. “
In other words, James Beard, who died in 1985 at the age of 81, was a master of the charcuterie board long before it became a staple on Instagram and Pinterest – and even before the founders of those platforms were even born.
The discovery of seeds of the present in the past happens again and again when I revisit Beard’s work, which I did this fall in anticipation of the first new biography of him in 30 years: “The Man Who Ate Too Much” by John Birdsall . published in October by WW Norton. For the first time, Mr. Birdsall brings both scientific research and a strange lens into Beard’s life, combining the strands of privilege and pain, achievement and fear in an entirely new story.
“Bart is a very intricate and, in some ways, messy character,” said Mr. Birdsall, a writer and former chef whose work focuses on the strange influence of American food and homophobia in the culinary world. “I wanted to understand that – the personality or psychology of someone who made a huge impact on American cultural life and yet lived with the fear of being exposed.”
Not many home cooks use Beard’s recipes today, and very little of his tremendous, influential work is online. But growing up, Julia Child and James Beard were the twin gods of our household, like an extra group of grandparents who consulted and compared my food-mad parents on a daily basis. It made perfect sense to me that as we drove north of town we passed highway signs for James Beard State Park. (My adult I now know it’s James Baird State Park, named after a local tycoon who donated the land.)
Child and her book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” were the source for dinner party menus, but Beard was the wise man with his 1972 masterpiece “American Cookery” who created daily foods like potpie and potato salad, bean soup and cornbread ruled.
Today, Beard’s definition of American cuisine is complicated by questions about his authority, identity, and privilege. Even so, the book stands for the arc of the 20th century as a chronicle of the nation’s food.
It’s still amazingly fresh in many ways.
“With the growth of organic horticulture and the cult of organic food, there is renewed interest in food from the wild,” begins the chapter of the book on vegetables. In contrast to “Joy of Cooking” and the “Betty Crocker Cookbook”, other kitchen Bibles of the time, “American Cookery” rarely requires frozen vegetables, canned fruit, cake mixes or similar ready-made meals.
Many of Beard’s recipe lists read like a modern Brooklyn bistro menu, with items like sunchokes and sliders, spring onion tart, and roasted figs and ham. Many others reflect the relatively broad view of American cuisine: ceviche, Syrian lentil soup with Swiss chard, menudo, and basil pesto – a radically raw and shockingly aromatic sauce at the time.
The food of the United States was not considered real cuisine at the time, like that of France, China, Japan or Italy, where culinary traditions have been built over centuries. But the American melting pot had combined ingredients through generations of immigration. And in the counterculture of the 1970s, the idea of the global palate penetrated the mainstream, sweeping Chinese cooking classes, Indian spice blends, Japanese ceramics, and Moroccan tagines into US kitchens.
Often times, these ideas came from white male goalkeepers like Beard, the New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne, and members of the Wine and Food Society of New York, a group then dominated by wealthy gay men.
All chefs who now label their food “New American” owe Beard something, although most only know him as the face stamped on the culinary medals awarded annually by the foundation that bears his name. After his death, the organization was created to preserve his heritage and townhouse in Greenwich Village. After a sluggish start and a 2004 embezzlement scandal that resulted in a jail sentence for the group’s president, the foundation has grown with the power of its awards as restaurants and chefs have become increasingly important elements of popular culture.
But most of the chefs and others who have known Beard through his myriad books, columns, and television appearances (beginning in 1946) had no idea what Mr. Birdsall calls the “messy” parts of his story.
There are sad, messy parts: the childhood ridicule Beard suffered from because of his size, the expulsion from college for a same-sex act, the fear he was living with as a gay celebrity when he got out was unthinkable.
And there are disturbing, messy parts: plagiarizing and recognizing other people’s recipes, accepting paid endorsements for products he didn’t always believe in, and exposing and petting young men hoping for his professional assistance.
Joys and Prejudices, Beard’s 1964 Memoirs of Recipes, paints a nostalgic picture of an almost pre-industrial childhood in the affluent class of Portland, Ore. In Beard’s tale, it was happy, glamorous, and full of glowing food moments: wild salmon and blueberries at the family home on Gearhart Beach; fresh abalone, white asparagus, and crab legs in San Francisco dining rooms; Foie gras and dungeness crabs aboard the luxury ships between Portland and Los Angeles.
But Mr. Birdsall’s research, including extensive interviews with Beard’s contemporaries, revealed shadows Beard never mentioned.
Beard was born in 1903 and was an only child raised primarily by his mother, Elizabeth Beard, famous for her cuisine at the elegant Gladstone Pension in the days of the oyster patties, the pheasant roast and the Charlotte Russe. The person who did most of the actual kitchen chores was Jue Let, a master chef from Guangdong who worked at the Gladstone and then the Beard family home for more than a decade.
He fed James Congee, steamed salt fish, and lychees – and pleased the boy’s demanding mother by flawlessly executing her formulas for chicken broth, pie crust, and dry-ripened meat. You and Mr. Let instilled in Beard the culinary ethos of fresh and seasonal ingredients that were carefully prepared and became Beard’s contribution to the American food revolution of the 1970s.
In Beard’s memory, “mother” made all the rules: only certain types of fruit such as Marshall strawberries were allowed “into the house”; She wouldn’t dream of using canned vegetables. Venison “wasn’t worth the effort” and so on. The willingness to have an opinion that he had learned from her helped him become one of the great food voices of his century.
But in Mr. Birdsall’s sensitive storytelling, it also meant that Beard’s mother never hid her impatience with him, his childhood needs, and his growing differences.
Most of Beard’s lyrics say, “He’s still pushing the story of great, happy childhood vacations,” Birdsall said. But at the glorious duck and beef feasts that Beard describes, he was usually the only child present; Avoiding his mother’s thoroughbred friends, his father was often absent, and Beard learned to perform for the crowd as he had to do for the rest of his life. “I was soon getting more precocious and angry than I had ever been in Portland,” he wrote in his memoir.
There never seems to have been a time when Bart was comfortable in his skin.
According to Mr. Birdsall, who had access to many of Beard’s unpublished writings, he knew he was gay from a young age. The first public broadcast of his gay identity was traumatic: in his first year at Reed College, he was caught by his roommates in a sexual encounter with a professor and unceremoniously expelled – a double humiliation from which he never fully recovered.
Being expelled from Reed meant being effectively banned from home – albeit with a broad socio-economic safety net. He sailed to Europe, discovered the gay underground in London and Paris, moved to New York, and began his food career in the 1930s with catering parties hosted by Manhattan’s gay and art elites.
Even when he became confident and successful, Beard was always ashamed of his size; 6 feet 3 inches tall, he often weighed more than 350 pounds in adulthood. For the last 30 years of his life, his legs had to be tightly wrapped in bandages and compression stockings because of chronic edema and varicose veins. And according to Mr. Birdsall’s research, Beard had a lifelong condition called phimosis – an overly tight foreskin that makes erections extremely painful – that complicated Beard’s feelings about sex and his body. (It is often treated today in childhood.)
Although he had many friends in the food world (and enemies, especially those whose recipes he kept), Beard had few intimate partners throughout his life. It was not until the 1970s, when he settled in fame and fortune, that he achieved the stability that allowed him to buy a townhouse in Greenwich Village with his partner Gino Cofacci and establish himself as a host.
“I’d never seen anything like the socializing and cooking and eating that would take place there,” said chef Andrew Zimmer, who attended Beard’s iconic Christmas and Sunday Open House as a boy. “There was a fabulous mafia living downtown with gay food.”
Mr Zimmer’s father, a successful advertising man, came out gay and moved with his partner to Greenwich Village in the late 1960s.
Mr Zimmer said he loved the chaotic generosity: poaching whole salmon in a copper pot on top of the industrial oven, huge platters of sausage and cheese, stacks of ingredients and bowls of fruit all over the place, and Bart leading everything – tasting, carving, cutting, roaring and multiple changes of silk pajamas. He also remembers the first time he encountered flavor there, like a chicken with olives, almonds, and raisins, a dish with roots in Spain and California that Beard made many times.
Most of all, he said, he remembered the feeling of being free. “There were so many places my fathers felt uncomfortable even though we were going to restaurants all the time,” said Mr Zimmer.
He now credits Beard’s hospitality for his own early culinary endeavors. “Seeing them eat together, shoulders relaxed and happy, meant everything to me,” he said. “I’ve seen what food can do for a person’s heart.”
Recipe: James Beards Farmer’s Chicken