In 1938, thirty-five-year-old James Beard, college dropout and struggling actor, returned to New York City from his home in Oregon to give acting one last try. Residing with a wealthy roommate at 14 Washington Place, Beard’s theater career never got off the ground, but his side hustle catering cocktail parties did. In 1940, the first of more than thirty cookbooks by Beard, Hors D’Oeuvre and Canapés, with a Key to the Cocktail Party was published. It was the start of a half-century career as a chef, consultant, columnist, cooking show host, teacher, and author.
John Birdsall’s The Man Who Ate Too Much is a comprehensive biography of the life of the “Dean of American Cookery” as well a history of American food.
Born in 1903 in Portland OR, Beard was the only child of an unhappy marriage. In his writings, Beard often referred fondly to the sights, sounds, and food of his youth, but it was a lonely childhood. From an early age, Beard knew he was gay, which was an open secret in New York publishing circles, but one which was assiduously kept from the American public.
Through his television appearances (1946-47!), cooking classes, and cookbooks, Beard helped generations of home cooks bake, broil, baste, barbeque, and entertain with ease and style. He championed regional cuisine before it was fashionable and reinterpreted European cuisine for American palates.
For all of Beard’s contributions to American cuisine, Birdsall doesn’t shy away from Beard’s less attractive traits, his frequent plagiarisms, his tendency to sideline or sabotage collaborators, his propensity to overcommit, and his slapdash writing.
In his later years, the large chef’s health problems slowed him down considerably. (Beard was 6’ 3” three hundred pounds.) At his death in 1985, a self-proclaimed Westerner to the end, he surprisingly left the bulk of his estate to Reed College (Portland, OR) from which he’d been humiliatingly expelled in 1921.
The James Beard Foundation was established in 1986 by a former student of Beard’s Peter Kump who purchased Beard’s home at 167 West 12th Street for its headquarters.
You do not to need to know anything about cooking (clearly!) to enjoy this biography!
WHAT OTHER REVIEWERS SAY
Publishers Weekly: “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 result is a rich, entertaining account of an essential tastemaker.”
David Lebovitz, author of My Paris Kitchen and Drinking French: “A remarkable book about a legend who was held back by the boundaries of the past, but was profoundly ahead of his time in so many other ways.”
WHO WROTE IT
John Birdsall is a two-time James Beard Award-winning author and former restaurant critic. He is the coauthor of the cookbook, Hawker Fare, with James Syhabout.