A new biography traces the influence he wielded as a writer and the pain he endured for his sexuality in an unwelcoming world.
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 Gruyère, 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. For the first time, Mr. Birdsall brings both scholarly research and a queer lens to Beard’s life, braiding the strands of privilege and pain, performance and anxiety, into an entirely new story.
“Beard is a very complicated and in some ways a messy figure,” said Mr. 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.”
Not many 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. It seemed entirely logical to me that when we drove north of the city, we passed highway signs for James Beard State Park. (My adult self now knows that it’s James Baird State Park, named for a local tycoon who donated the land.)
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. Unlike “Joy of Cooking” and the “Betty Crocker Cookbook,” other kitchen bibles of the time, “American Cookery” rarely calls for frozen vegetables, canned fruit, cake mix or similar convenience foods.
Many of Beard’s recipe lists read like a modern Brooklyn bistro menu, with items like sunchokes and sliders, scallion tart and roasted figs with prosciutto. Many others reflect the relatively broad view that he took of American cooking: ceviche, Syrian lentil soup with Swiss chard, menudo and basil pesto — a radically raw and shockingly flavorful sauce at the time.
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, the 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 townhouse. 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 had no idea of what Mr. 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’s house at Gearhart Beach; 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 Mr. 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, roast pheasant and charlotte russe. The person who did most of the actual kitchen work was Jue Let, a masterly cook from Guangdong who worked at the Gladstone and then in the Beard family home for more than a decade.
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 Mr. 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.
In Beard’s memory, “Mother” made all the rules: only certain strains of fruit, like Marshall strawberries, were “allowed into the house”; she “would not dream” of using canned vegetables; venison “wasn’t worth the trouble,” and so on. The willingness to be opinionated that he learned from her helped him become one of the great food voices of his century.
But in Mr. Birdsall’s empathetic telling, it also meant that Beard’s mother never concealed her impatience with him, his childhood needs and his growing differences.
In most of Beard’s writing, “he’s still pushing the story of grand, happy boyhood holidays,” Mr. Birdsall said. But at the glorious duck dinners and mince pie feasts that Beard describes, he was usually the sole child present; his father, who avoided his mother’s racy friends, was often absent, and Beard learned to perform for the crowd, as he felt compelled to for the rest of his life. “I soon became as precocious and nasty a child as ever inhabited Portland,” he wrote in his memoir.
There seems to have never been a time when Beard was comfortable in his own skin.
According to Mr. Birdsall, who gained access to many of Beard’s unpublished writings, he knew he was gay from a very young age. The first public airing of his gay 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 from Reed meant effectively being banished from home — albeit with a wide socio-economic 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 in bandages and compression stockings because of chronic edema and varicose veins. And, according to Mr. Birdsall’s research, Beard had a lifelong condition called phimosis — a too-tight foreskin that makes erections extremely painful — that made Beard’s feelings about sex and his body even more complicated. (It is now commonly treated in childhood.)
And so, though he had many friends in the food world (and enemies, especially those whose recipes he lifted), Beard had just a few intimate partners over the course of his life. 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 townhouse 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 the 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.”
Mr. Zimmern’s father, a successful advertising executive, came out as gay and moved to Greenwich Village with his partner in the late 1960s.
Mr. Zimmern said he loved the chaotic generosity: whole salmon poaching in a copper pot on the industrial stove, giant platters of charcuterie and cheese, piles of ingredients and bowls of fruit everywhere, and Beard presiding over all of it — tasting, carving, slicing, roaring and going through multiple changes of silk pajamas. He also remembers encountering tastes there for the first time, like a braise of chicken with olives, almonds and raisins, a dish with roots in Spain and California that Beard made often.
But mainly, he said, he remembers the feeling of being free. “There were so many places that my dads were uncomfortable, on their guard, even though we went to restaurants all the time,” Mr. Zimmern said.
He now credits Beard’s hospitality for his own early culinary aspirations. “To see them eating together, shoulders relaxed and happy, meant everything to me,” he said. “I saw what food can do for a person’s heart.”