His talents were noted; a formal catering company was born; and then came the requests from publishers for cookbooks. The deadlines were impossible, the financial compensation meager, but the name James Beard went out into the world, as did his notion of what an American cuisine could be, when “cuisine” was still a word reserved for the feats of the French. He won the trust of readers as an “unfussy bon vivant, as much in love with a good club sandwich as he was with veal Oscar,” who decried the “phony gentility of the gourmet crowd” and insisted on touching food with his bare hands.
This is not biography as lionization: Birdsall notes Beard’s tendency to crib from his own recipes under the pressure of deadlines and to ignore or improperly credit the contributions of others. But he argues that Beard’s approach was essentially egalitarian, even Whitmanesque, casting American cuisine as a grass-roots “collective effort” of home cooks across the land.
In this book, the more famous Beard becomes, the more he recedes. We lose him in the crowd. Birdsall has done extensive research — this is the writer’s dilemma, to have unearthed so much great material, you can’t bear to leave any of it on the cutting-room floor — and grants elaborate paragraphs to almost every person in Beard’s circle, colleagues and enemies alike, so many of them that I kept wishing for an old-fashioned dramatis personae to remind me who they were and why they mattered. We get cameos from Truman Capote, Vladimir Horowitz and, most delightfully, Alice B. Toklas, who bakes scones and insists on dining with her back to any view, so as not to be distracted from the food.
What Birdsall is aiming for is a holistic portrait of a time and place, of an America coaxed out of its postwar thraldom to frozen foods (in which Beard was complicit, accepting sponsorship from Birds Eye) and enticed by gleaming backyard grills marketed like muscle cars into a new era of everyday cooking, in which simple attention to detail could turn the humblest ingredient into luxury. At the same time, the country was facing a reckoning with its long suppression of lives seen as “deviant.”
Beard’s home was just a stroll away from the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, where a police raid in 1969 sparked a revolt that became a flash point for the gay rights movement. He wasn’t quite ready for it. After decades of public disguise, it took daring just for him to show a student from his cooking classes his collection of pillows that he’d needlepointed himself; the revelation of this private hobby is brief, but one of the book’s most moving passages.
Since his death in 1985, his legacy has lived on at the James Beard Foundation, whose annual awards focus on both the making and the chronicling of food and are considered the highest such honors in America — although Birdsall has recently criticized the foundation for its fumbling of issues of bias in judging, which he sees as entirely counter to Beard’s “progressive, anti-elitist message.” Birdsall has won two James Beard writing awards himself, the first, in 2014, for his essay “America, Your Food Is So Gay,” published in Lucky Peach, in which he recalls his struggle as a gay man in restaurant kitchens dominated by homophobic chefs who nevertheless all lusted after a James Beard award of their own.