The BookBrowse Review

Published September 16, 2020

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Book Jacket

The Man Who Ate Too Much
The Life of James Beard
by John Birdsall
6 Oct 2020
464 pages
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN-13: 9780393635713
Genre: Biography/Memoir
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The definitive biography of America's best-known and least-understood food personality, and the modern culinary landscape he shaped.

In the first portrait of James Beard in twenty-five years, John Birdsall accomplishes what no prior telling of Beard's life and work has done: He looks beyond the public image of the "Dean of American Cookery" to give voice to the gourmet's complex, queer life and, in the process, illuminates the history of American food in the twentieth century. At a time when stuffy French restaurants and soulless Continental cuisine prevailed, Beard invented something strange and new: the notion of an American cuisine.

Informed by previously overlooked correspondence, years of archival research, and a close reading of everything Beard wrote, this majestic biography traces the emergence of personality in American food while reckoning with the outwardly gregarious Beard's own need for love and connection, arguing that Beard turned an unapologetic pursuit of pleasure into a new model for food authors and experts.

Born in Portland, Oregon, in 1903, Beard would journey from the pristine Pacific Coast to New York's Greenwich Village by way of gay undergrounds in London and Paris of the 1920s. The failed actor–turned–Manhattan canapé hawker–turned–author and cooking teacher was the jovial bachelor uncle presiding over America's kitchens for nearly four decades. In the 1940s he hosted one of the first television cooking shows, and by flouting the rules of publishing would end up crafting some of the most expressive cookbooks of the twentieth century, with recipes and stories that laid the groundwork for how we cook and eat today.

In stirring, novelistic detail, The Man Who Ate Too Much brings to life a towering figure, a man who still represents the best in eating and yet has never been fully understood―until now. This is biography of the highest order, a book about the rise of America's food written by the celebrated writer who fills in Beard's life with the color and meaning earlier generations were afraid to examine.

16 pages of photographs

"Birdsall's narrative offers a tangy portrait of the backstabbing world of post-WWII food writing along with vivid, novelistic evocations of Beard's flavor experiences...The result is a rich, entertaining account of an essential tastemaker." - Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"[Birdsall] turns a sharp but sympathetic eye on the carefully closeted food writer who celebrated the glories of homegrown ingredients and down-home cooking decades before they were fashionable...A thoughtful appreciation of a central figure in the story of American food culture." - Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Highly recommended, this book offers new insight into Beard's life and time. It also helps another generation of foodies appreciate how Beard shaped American cuisine and helps all of us better understand the struggles LGBQT people faced in the mid-20th century." - Library Journal (starred review)

"It is fitting that John Birdsall should give this impossibly rich tribute to the gay father of modern American food culture, revealing that it's not the food but the ingredients within that make the cook a legend. Savoir faire, shade, dish, yearning, hunger, and creative fire made the great James Beard and this joy of a biography possible…Foundational. Important. Indispensable and delectable queer food history at its finest." - Michael W. Twitty, James Beard Award–winning author of The Cooking Gene

"A remarkable book about a legend who was held back by the boundaries of the past, but was profoundly ahead of his time in so many other ways." - David Lebovitz, author of My Paris Kitchen and Drinking French

"John Birdsall went back and read between all the lines for this magnificent biography. The Man Who Ate Too Much reminds us that someone's legacy might not actually reflect the life they lived, and that what we promote doesn't necessarily equate to who we are." - Julia Turshen, bestselling cookbook author and founder of Equity at the Table

John Birdsall is a two-time James Beard Award–winning author and former restaurant critic. He is the coauthor of a cookbook, Hawker Fare, with James Syhabout.

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