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The Man Who Ate Too Much
Cover of The Man Who Ate Too Much
The Man Who Ate Too Much
The Life of James Beard
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The definitive biography of America's best-known and least-understood food personality, and the modern culinary landscape he shaped.

In the first portrait of James Beard in twenty-five years, John Birdsall accomplishes what no prior telling of Beard's life and work has done: He looks beyond the public image of the "Dean of American Cookery" to give voice to the gourmet's complex, queer life and, in the process, illuminates the history of American food in the twentieth century. At a time when stuffy French restaurants and soulless Continental cuisine prevailed, Beard invented something strange and new: the notion of an American cuisine.

Informed by previously overlooked correspondence, years of archival research, and a close reading of everything Beard wrote, this majestic biography traces the emergence of personality in American food while reckoning with the outwardly gregarious Beard's own need for love and connection, arguing that Beard turned an unapologetic pursuit of pleasure into a new model for food authors and experts.

Born in Portland, Oregon, in 1903, Beard would journey from the pristine Pacific Coast to New York's Greenwich Village by way of gay undergrounds in London and Paris of the 1920s. The failed actor–turned–Manhattan canapé hawker–turned–author and cooking teacher was the jovial bachelor uncle presiding over America's kitchens for nearly four decades. In the 1940s he hosted one of the first television cooking shows, and by flouting the rules of publishing would end up crafting some of the most expressive cookbooks of the twentieth century, with recipes and stories that laid the groundwork for how we cook and eat today.

In stirring, novelistic detail, The Man Who Ate Too Much brings to life a towering figure, a man who still represents the best in eating and yet has never been fully understood—until now. This is biography of the highest order, a book about the rise of America's food written by the celebrated writer who fills in Beard's life with the color and meaning earlier generations were afraid to examine.

The definitive biography of America's best-known and least-understood food personality, and the modern culinary landscape he shaped.

In the first portrait of James Beard in twenty-five years, John Birdsall accomplishes what no prior telling of Beard's life and work has done: He looks beyond the public image of the "Dean of American Cookery" to give voice to the gourmet's complex, queer life and, in the process, illuminates the history of American food in the twentieth century. At a time when stuffy French restaurants and soulless Continental cuisine prevailed, Beard invented something strange and new: the notion of an American cuisine.

Informed by previously overlooked correspondence, years of archival research, and a close reading of everything Beard wrote, this majestic biography traces the emergence of personality in American food while reckoning with the outwardly gregarious Beard's own need for love and connection, arguing that Beard turned an unapologetic pursuit of pleasure into a new model for food authors and experts.

Born in Portland, Oregon, in 1903, Beard would journey from the pristine Pacific Coast to New York's Greenwich Village by way of gay undergrounds in London and Paris of the 1920s. The failed actor–turned–Manhattan canapé hawker–turned–author and cooking teacher was the jovial bachelor uncle presiding over America's kitchens for nearly four decades. In the 1940s he hosted one of the first television cooking shows, and by flouting the rules of publishing would end up crafting some of the most expressive cookbooks of the twentieth century, with recipes and stories that laid the groundwork for how we cook and eat today.

In stirring, novelistic detail, The Man Who Ate Too Much brings to life a towering figure, a man who still represents the best in eating and yet has never been fully understood—until now. This is biography of the highest order, a book about the rise of America's food written by the celebrated writer who fills in Beard's life with the color and meaning earlier generations were afraid to examine.

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About the Author-
  • John Birdsall is a two-time James Beard Award–winning author and former restaurant critic. He is the coauthor of a cookbook, Hawker Fare, with James Syhabout. He lives in Oakland, California.
Reviews-
  • Library Journal

    May 1, 2020

    A two-time James Beard Award-winning author and former restaurant critic, Birdsall offers the first biography in a generation of James Beard, who significantly shaped American cuisine yet remained painfully alone as a closeted gay man.

    Copyright 2020 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from May 25, 2020
    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.

  • Kirkus

    Starred review from June 15, 2020
    The author of the groundbreaking article, "America, Your Food Is So Gay," turns a sharp but sympathetic eye on the carefully closeted food writer who celebrated the glories of homegrown ingredients and down-home cooking decades before they were fashionable. Born in Portland, Oregon, James Beard (1903-1985) told friends later in life that he'd known he was gay since he was 7. During his freshman year at Reed College, he was quietly expelled after being "caught in an act of oral indecency with a professor." He spent a desultory decade or so trying to make it as an actor and finally hit his stride in New York, where he started a cocktail catering business with an acquaintance made through his prodigious socializing. In 1940, his first book, Hors D'Oeuvre and Canap�s, With a Key to the Cocktail Party, began a lifelong tradition of not acknowledging collaborators or the sources of recipes that were sometimes lifted from others and, later in his career, reprinted from his earlier books. What sold even the most mediocre of his books was his larger-than-life personality: "playful and unabashedly queer," Birdsall notes, but only to those in the know. For average Americans, Beard was simply someone who demystified cooking and invited them to enjoy food as he did. The author's well-written and knowledgeable text doesn't scant Beard's cooking and eating--indeed, luscious descriptions of memorable meals make this an appetite-arousing read--but its major secondary theme is the nature of gay life in midcentury America, where discretion was essential and discovery meant professional ruin and very likely jail. Birdsall's analysis of Beard's ambivalent reaction to the Stonewall Inn riot of 1969 is one of the book's many intelligent passages decoding a worldview built on shame and secrecy, one that made Beard frequently unhappy and lonely despite his fame and success. A thoughtful appreciation of a central figure in the story of American food culture.

    COPYRIGHT(2020) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist

    October 1, 2020
    Before a herd of Americans called themselves foodies, James Beard pioneered the way. Publishing dozens of cookbooks, he brought respect to American cooking and wrote recipes that people genuinely hoped to follow to impress friends and family. His fame did not come without personal cost. As Birdsall (Hawker Fare, 2018) recounts Beard's life, Beard struggled to conceal his sexuality from a public not then receptive to gay people. As Beard gained fame, hosted a television cooking show, and made personal appearances, he guarded a secret life. His friends and colleagues understood him and his sexuality as well as gastronomic tastes, and he was allowed to be different so long as the public would never know, no matter their suspicions. Beard could be difficult. He passed off others' work as his own. He wrote poor prose that sympathetic editors revised. He plagiarized himself, duplicating recipes from earlier books and magazine articles. Nevertheless, Beard remains the undisputed dean of American cookery, and the personal predilections he worked so hard to hide wouldn't raise an eyebrow today.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2020, American Library Association.)

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