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BOOK REVIEW:

The man who ate too much : the life of James Beard

In the preface to this biography there is a quotation from Gael Greene, food and restaurant critic, and it should whet the curiosity of every foodie:

 

  • "In the beginning, there was James Beard.  Before Julia ..., before a wine closet in the life of every grape nut and the glorious coming of age of American wines, before the new American cooking, chefs as superstars, and our great irrepressible gourmania ... there was James Beard, our Big Daddy."

I cannot quite pinpoint my initial awareness of James Beard, but I do remember a week-long-baking experience with his book, Beard on Bread. I was on a staycation, which ended up as an obsessed, compulsive week of working my way through a good chunk of that book. In baking, yeasted breads cannot be rushed, so I read and reread parts of the book, plotting and planning which recipe to do next. My personal copy of that book is still with me, dog-eared and stained, as is an enormous appreciation about what it takes to make a good piece of bread, the staff of life.

 

He was a large man, rotund in fact, with an ebullient, cheery demeanor, which hid an injured soul whose life was fascinating and damaged.  He became the American dean of cooking, not by design, but by happenstance, and he came fully armed with experience and knowledge, unlike anyone else. His mother was a phenomenal cook and hotel manager, and the lonely, young boy soon matched her innate fine sense of taste and smell, with his own. The young lad was able to have imprinted on his tastebuds and memory, the very best in fish and shellfish, as well as other food commodities that were fresh and unadulterated in the northwest region where he grew up.

 

Jame Beard's life, and that of his family, was full of secrets, inconsistencies, lies and obfuscations. It is important to note that he was born in 1903 and died in 1985. That span of years made it impossible, and in many instances illegal, to admit that someone was gay. Beard never came out, and he was among a cadre of gay men, in the world of cuisine, who also were closeted. Author John Birdsall's meticulous research about Beard's life and other gay food people, along with their major contributions to American cuisine, brings deserved and overdue credit. This part of his life should be of interest to the LGBTQIA community, whether or not they are foodies.

 

There is a great deal more to the historical background of the times in which James Beard lived, and to his family's life and his own. Apart from documenting gay life, Birdsall writes about the milieu of those long ago times when there were many gender, racial, social, political and economic inequities that were a given, and not to be challenged. James Beard was a captive of those times, as was his mother, an entrepreneurial woman way ahead of her time, who confidently forged ahead, in defiance of her husband and of others. The very kind family Chinese cook, Jue Let, was among many Chinese people whose lives were relegated to a defined type of work. Let followed the recipes of Mrs. Beard, but in addition he brought his own knowledge and expertise in preparation of his own cuisine. Birdsall excels at providing the historical context of those days when there was a burgeoning west coast (shipping, farming, fresh coastal waters with fish and wild life), where most people could shed old lives, create new ones and make a place of comfort and importance for themselves. The other aspect of Birdsall's writing, that drove me to a wonderful distraction, was his vivid description of food, cooking, recipes and meals.

 

In this first fully researched biography of James Beard, we are presented with an acknowledgment of how important and great are his contributions in putting American cuisine on the culinary map of the world. For books owned by LAPL, and written by James Beard click here.

 

The James Beard Foundation is a lasting heritage to the great man, where awards are presented, classes are given, and there is support for those who are interested in the culinary arts.

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