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A deeper, darker look at James Beard

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                James Beard, in his Greenwich Village kitchen in 1964, is the subject of a new biography, “The Man Who Ate Too Much.”

    NEW YORK TIMES

    James Beard, in his Greenwich Village kitchen in 1964, is the subject of a new biography, “The Man Who Ate Too Much.”

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                John Birdsall, James Beard’s biographer and a former chef, says he is dedicated to “pushing back on queer erasure” in American food history.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    John Birdsall, James Beard’s biographer and a former chef, says he is dedicated to “pushing back on queer erasure” in American food history.

Fifty years ago, this is how the foremost American food authority described his favorite menu for a holiday open house:

“I put out a big board of various slicing sausages — salami, Polish sausage, whatever I find in the market that looks good — and an assortment of mustards. I also like to have another board of cheeses: Swiss Gruyere, a fine cheddar and maybe a brie. And with the cheeses, I serve thinly sliced rye bread and crackers of some kind and a bowl of fruit.”

In other words: James Beard, who died in 1985 at age 81, was a master of the charcuterie board long before it became a staple on Instagram and Pinterest — and even before those platforms’ founders were born.

Discovering seeds of the present in the past happens again and again when revisiting Beard’s body of 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 W.W. Norton. Birdsall brings both scholarly research and a queer lens to Beard’s life, braiding the strands of privilege and pain, perfor- mance and anxiety, into an entirely new story.

“Beard is a very complicated and in some ways a messy figure,” said Birdsall, a writer and former chef whose work focuses on queer influence in American food and homo­phobia in the culinary world. “I wanted to understand that — the personality or psychology of somebody who had a huge impact on American cultural life, yet lived with such fear of being exposed.”

Few home cooks use Beard’s recipes today, and very little of his enormous, influential body of work is online. But when I was growing up, Julia Child and James Beard were the twin gods of our household, like an extra set of grandparents whom my food-mad parents consulted and compared daily.

Child and her book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” were the source of dinner- party menus, but Beard was the sage who governed everyday food like potpie and potato salad, bean soup and cornbread with his 1972 masterwork, “American Cookery.”

Today, Beard’s definition of American cooking is complicated by questions about his authority, identity and privilege. Nevertheless, the book stands as a chronicle of the nation’s food for the arc of the 20th century.

It is still astonishingly fresh in many ways.

“Along with the growth of organic gardening and the health foods cult, there is a renewed interest in food from the wilds,” begins the book’s chapter on vegetables.

The food of the United States wasn’t then considered a true cuisine, like that of France, China, Japan or Italy, where culinary traditions were built over centuries. But the American melting pot had been combining ingredients through generations of immigration. And in the counterculture of the 1970s, the idea of the global palate was filtering into the mainstream, sweeping Chinese cooking classes, Indian spice blends, Japanese pottery and Moroccan tagines into U.S. kitchens.

Often, those ideas arrived through white male gatekeepers like Beard, New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne and the members of the Wine and Food Society of New York, a group then dominated by wealthy gay men.

All chefs who now describe their food as “new American” owe something to Beard, though most know him only as the face stamped on the culinary medals bestowed annually by the foundation named for him. Following his death, the organization was started as a way to preserve his legacy and his Greenwich Village town house. After a halting start and a 2004 embezzlement scandal that resulted in a prison term for the group’s president, the foundation has grown along with the power of its awards, as restaurants and chefs have become ever more important elements of popular culture.

But most chefs, and others who have known Beard through his countless books, columns and television appearances (which began in 1946) have no idea of what Birdsall calls the “messy” parts of his story.

There are sad, messy parts: the childhood ridicule Beard suffered because of his size, the expulsion from college because of a single sex act, the anxiety he lived with as a gay celebrity when coming out was unthinkable.

And there are troubling, messy parts: plagiarizing and taking credit for other people’s recipes, accepting paid endorsements for products that he did not always believe in, and exposing himself to and fondling young men who hoped for his professional support.

“Delights and Prejudices,” Beard’s 1964 “memoir with recipes,” paints a nostalgic picture of a nearly preindustrial childhood among the wealthy class of Portland, Ore. In Beard’s telling, it was happy, glamorous and shot through with glowing food moments: wild salmon and huckleberries at the family home; fresh abalone, white asparagus and crab legs in San Francisco dining rooms; foie gras and Dungeness crab aboard the luxury vessels that ran between Portland and Los Angeles.

But Birdsall’s research, including extensive interviews with Beard’s contemporaries, revealed shadows that Beard never mentioned.

Born in 1903, Beard was an only child raised mostly by his mother, Elizabeth Beard, who was famous for her cooking at the elegant boardinghouse she ran, the Gladstone, in the days of oyster patties and roast pheasant. The person who did most of the actual kitchen work was Jue Let, a masterly cook from Guangdong, China, who worked at the Gladstone and then in the Beard family home.

He fed James congee, steamed salt fish and lychees — and satisfied the boy’s exacting mother by flawlessly executing her formulas for chicken stock, pie crusts and dry-aged meat. She and Let instilled in Beard

the culinary ethos of fresh and seasonal ingredients, carefully cooked, that became Beard’s contribution to the American food revolution of the 1970s.

There seems to have never been a time when Beard was comfortable in his own skin.

According to Birdsall, who gained access to many of Beard’s unpublished writings, Beard knew he was gay from a very young age. The first public airing of his identity was traumatic: In his freshman year at Reed College, he was caught by his roommates in a sexual encounter with a professor, and summarily expelled — a double humiliation that he never entirely recovered from.

Being expelled meant effectively being banished from home — albeit with a wide safety net. He sailed for Europe, discovered the gay underground in London and Paris, moved to New York and began his food career in the 1930s, catering parties thrown by Manhattan’s gay and art-world elites.

Even as he became confident and successful, Beard always carried shame about 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 kept tightly wrapped because of chronic edema and varicose veins.

Though he had many friends in the food world (and enemies, especially those whose recipes he lifted), Beard had just a few intimate partners. It wasn’t until the 1970s, when he settled into fame and some wealth, that he achieved the stability that allowed him to buy a town house in Greenwich Village with his partner, Gino Cofacci, and come into his own as a host.

“I had never seen anything like the conviviality and the cooking and the eating that would go on there,” said chef Andrew Zimmern, who went to Beard’s legendary Christmas and Sunday open houses as a boy. “There was a whole fabulous gay food mafia living downtown.”

James Beard’s Farmer’s Chicken

  • 3-1/2 to 4 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (or a combination of thighs and drumsticks)
  • Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 yellow or white onion, minced
  • 1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and minced
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1 tablespoon sweet paprika
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 1 cup mild green olives, such as manzanilla or Castelvetrano, pitted
  • 1/2 cup dried currants or raisins

>> For serving:

  • 1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon zest plus 1 tablespoon juice
  • 1/3 cup minced fresh parsley
  • 1/2 cup toasted sliced almonds (optional)
  • Cooked rice or orzo, or garlic-rubbed toast

Pat chicken pieces dry and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

In a wide skillet with a lid, heat oil over medium. Working in batches if necessary to avoid crowding the pan, brown chicken, rotating as needed, until skin is golden and releases easily from pan, at least 5 minutes per side. Adjust heat to avoid scorching. As pieces are browned, transfer them to a plate.

Once all the chicken is browned, add onion and bell pepper to skillet. Sprinkle with salt and cook, stirring, until softened and beginning to brown around edges, about 5 minutes. Stir in oregano and paprika.

Add wine and simmer, stirring up browned bits from bottom of the pan, until the pan is almost dry, about 5 minutes.

Stir in stock, olives and currants; bring to a simmer. Carefully return chicken to pan. Cover and let simmer over low heat 20 minutes.

Remove lid, stir; let simmer uncovered until liquid is reduced to a sauce, about 15 minutes more. Taste sauce, adding more salt and pepper if needed. (Recipe can be made up to this point and refrigerated for up to 3 days.)

When ready to serve, heat through and stir in lemon zest and juice. Divide among shallow bowls and sprinkle with parsley and almonds, if using. Serve with rice, orzo or toast. Serves 4 to 6.

Nutritional information unavailable.

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