If you’ve ever made a salad from tender greens picked up from the farmers’ market, slurped an oyster cultivated at a regenerative farm, or sliced into a hearty loaf of rye bread—then raise a glass of California wine to James Beard, the dean of American cooking. For more than 35 years and in nearly two dozen cookbooks, Beard swept aside stuffy imported notions of epicurean haute cuisine on the one hand and processed and freezer food on the other to reveal the real flavors that were available to American cooks: ham from Kentucky hogs, old-world loaves from immigrant bakeries, obscure Washington apples. As John Birdsall writes in the first biography of the chef in more than 25 years, Beard “remembered what food tasted like before supermarkets killed off local butchers and produce stands”—and he spent his whole life trying to share that memory with the public. But while he gave home cooks permission to put pleasure and flavor at the center of the American table, Beard kept his own struggles with self-doubt and his sexual identity in the closet (while winking at his own persona as a “gastronomic gigolo” in his books). Birdsall’s biography, The Man Who Ate Too Much, explores the paradox of Beard’s life as a beloved national figure who kept so much of himself hidden, “a man on a lonely coast who told us we could find meaning and comfort by embracing pleasure.”
Go beyond the episode:
- John Birdsall’s The Man Who Ate Too Much
- Read his first essay on James Beard in Lucky Peach (RIP), “America, Your Food Is So Gay”
- Watch the PBS American Masters documentary of Beard’s life, America’s First Foodie
- Chefs like Alice Waters took Beard’s lessons for the home cook to the restaurant kitchen, as she recalls in this clip
- Watch some moments from his short-lived show, I Love to Eat
- Check out one of our favorite James Beard cookbooks, Beard on Bread, which still holds up.
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