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

Norton. Oct. 2020. 496p. ISBN 9780393635713. $35. BIOG/COOKING
After winning the James Beard Award for his essay “America, Your Food Is So Gay,” Birdsall wondered how James Beard (1903-85) rose to become the beloved “dean of American food.” This engaging biography sheds insight, and describes Beard’s complicated life. Though Robert Clark’s James Beard: A Biography revealed aspects of Beard’s private life, Birdsall examines it more closely, placing it into historical context by recounting the oppression gay men faced at the time. Ever fearful of being outed, Beard habitually destroyed personal mementos, but Birdsall used published material and private letters, conducted personal interviews, scoured Beard’s appointment books (complete with menu notes), and examined photographs to write this vivid, detailed biography. The well-balanced narrative describes both high points in Beard’s life, such as his groundbreaking TV cooking show in 1946, as well as less celebratory topics, including his sometimes-ruthless ambition; battles with weight, loneliness, and depression; and Me Too moments.
VERDICT Highly recommended, this book offers new insight into Beard’s life and time. It also helps another generation of foodies appreciate how Beard shaped American cuisine and helps all of us better understand the struggles LGBQT people faced in the mid-20th century.
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