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David Leite: Renee, do you have any connection or stories about James Beard?

Renee Schettler: Well, the first cookbook I ever bought myself was by James Beard.

David: Oh, really? Which one?

Renee: It was his James Beard’s Simple Foods.

David: When was that?

James Beard's Simple Foods cookbook.

Renee: I was in college, and I took a ridiculous amount of time to make up my mind whether to buy the book or not. Because back then, I don’t know, it was like $18 or something, but that’s a lot of money.

David: Oh, my god. That’s a lot of money. Yeah, I understand.

Renee: It had that amazing cover, in watercolor drawing form, of him and his bow tie, and it just seemed playful and approachable. I remember standing in the bookstore for a really long time, page after page, just grateful for how approachable he made cooking. He was real. It didn’t have to be fancy, like in the pages of Gourmet, which I loved and appreciated and respected.

David: Which he wrote for, by the way.

Renee: The thing is, though, he made it real. I had been a baker up until then. I hadn’t really cooked, and I was intimidated by reading Gourmet for so many years and all these other fancy, lofty magazines and cookbooks, and I thought, “Maybe I can do this.”

David: Wow. That’s wonderful.

Renee: Yeah. What about you? James Beard connection?

David: I won three Beard Awards, which is wonderful, which is great.

Renee: Well, there’s that, but you know what I mean.

David: There’s that. You think about it. You’re saying it’s all about simplicity, all about American cooking, all about non-elitist everything, and of course, the Beard Awards are very elite. They are the best of the best of the best. It’s called the “Oscars of the Food World.” So it’s interesting, there’s this big juxtaposition between you as a consumer and me as a food writer, about James Beard. I have some of his books. I’ve only cooked some recipes, not a lot out of them, but he’s more of an ideal for me. He exists more on a shelf of American cooking and bringing the concept of seasonal cooking, and cooking with fresh ingredients, cooking locally, using great, fresh ingredients. That’s something that’s so ordinary now, but back then, Beard introduced this to America, so that’s how I think of Beard. He’s more theoretical for me than actually practical of cooking out of his cookbooks.

Renee: Oh, that’s so interesting because he was so hands-on in his books, right?

David: Mm-hmm. Yes, it’s true.

Renee: It reminds me of the Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries in recent years, because in a way, I feel like that’s a precursor, or maybe a natural progression, of all of the Instagram and blogging that’s been done in recent years with people’s personal experience in the kitchen, but James just wasn’t talking about himself. By doing what he did, he gave me permission, and information that I needed, to do it on my own.

David: That’s interesting, what you say to think about Beard as a precursor to what we now know as food blogging and, of course, the food writing, and there were others back then, too, M.F.K. Fisher, and many other writers. But Beard’s simplicity in talking directly to the person. And today, we have a guest who knows an awful lot about Beard and his position in place in American cooking and he has a terrific new biography out called The Man Who Ate Too Much. John Birdsall is a two-time James Beard Award-winning writer–there is James Beard again—

The Man Who Ate Too Much cookbook.

Renee: Oh, brother.

David: A winning writer focusing on culture and society. Welcome to the show, John.

Renee: Welcome, John.

John Birdsall

John Birdsall: Oh, thank you very much. It’s a thrill to be here.

Renee: John, where did you get the idea for the book? When did that come to you?

An illustration of a burger featured in the podcast Talking With My Mouth Full Ep. 34: An Intimate Look at James Beard with John Birdsall. : Lucky Peach

John: Well, it all started with an essay that I wrote in 2013. It was called “America, Your Food is so Gay.” I wrote it for the print quarterly, Lucky Peach. At that time, there was no Lucky Peach website, the magazine was published four times a year, and each issue had a theme. And so for the gender issue, I had been simmering with a sense of injustice because I really loved Lucky Peach. It was really kind of a document of chef and restaurant life, and especially at that time, the chef experience in America was predominantly male, really, overwhelmingly male, predominantly straight. There weren’t a lot of queer voices coming through, and Lucky Peach wasn’t reflecting the lives of LGBTQ cooks, people in the restaurant industry. I just had this sense of resentment because I felt like every chef I knew—and I used to be a chef myself for about 17 years—every chef I knew, the pinnacle of their career is to win a James Beard Award, and I thought, “This can be a really homophobic industry.”

David: Yes, it can.

John: Queer people’s experience in the kitchen, including mine and people I worked with, could be very demeaning. You would do the work and put up with homophobic comments or just little asides and you put up with it just because you really wanted to do the work. And so I felt like it was definitely time to say, “Hey, look. Every one of you guys predominantly wants to wear this image of James Beard around your neck on a medal, but how dare you not acknowledge that he was gay, that he had a really kind of difficult experience of being gay, which was not at all uncommon for men and women in the mid-20th century.”

A chef displaying a James Beard award, featured in the podcast Talking With My Mouth Full Ep. 34: An Intimate Look at James Beard with John Birdsall.
: Star Tribune

John: He just really lived in a lot of fear and shame about his queerness and just fear of being exposed and having it ruin his career. So I wrote this essay about this kind of unacknowledged influence of gay male food writers on American food culture in the 20th century, writing about Beard, Craig Claiborne, the great food editor of The New York Times, and Richard Olney, the cookbook author and French cooking guru. It stirred up some attention after it was published. I won a James Beard Award for it, which, thank you very much.

David: Yes, you did. Congratulations.

Renee: Right.

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FINALLY, it’s #pubday for THE MAN WHO ATE TOO MUCH! In early 2016 I was sitting with one of my agents from @folioliterary, @dadodd, in the @mcnallyjackson bookstore café on Prince Street in New York. We were spinning concepts for books; Dado and @stevetroha and I had been doing that for two years. What about, Dado started, and he paused. What about a biography of James Beard? I’d already flirted with the idea. Dado held up one cupped hand, and nestled his other cupped hand within it. Perfect fit, he said; subject and author. Right, but did I even like Beard? Could I spend years immersed in his life? I’d reread Robert Clark’s excellent 1994 bio. What could I add? But I kept thinking about something in Clark’s bio—a description of Beard’s time, in 1923, in Paris. It nagged at me: How was a gay 20-year-old theater nerd from Portland, Oregon, spending his time in one of the most pleasure-oriented cities in the world? I had a kind of a flash, a cliché epiphany. Out on the sidewalk, after my goodbyes to Dado, I called Perry in Oakland. I’m doing it, I said. It’s going to be a huge amount of work, but I’m doing it! Without actually knowing, I knew exactly what Beard was doing in Paris.

A post shared by John Birdsall (@john_birdsall) on

John: That felt great. Then Beard was the figure who I couldn’t stop thinking about. His experience seemed the most poignant, also instructive about the kind of influence of queer culture and sensibility on mainstream American food at that time in the 1950s through the 1980s.

James Beard and the impact of being gay

David: Here comes the big question, then: How did his being gay shape or benefit or hinder his career and how people accepted him?

An image of James Beard as a child, featured in the podcast Talking With My Mouth Full Ep. 34: An Intimate Look at James Beard with John Birdsall.

John: Well, he never acknowledged he was gay publicly during his lifetime, so he never came out. He was born in 1903, he died at the beginning of 1985. As a young man growing up in Portland, Oregon, the conditions there were not unlike really anywhere else in the United States, although they had their own dynamic. But there were really dire consequences for being publicly exposed as being gay at the time and there were legal consequences. It could ruin your career. There was even a eugenics law, if you were convicted of lewdness or perversion, which is what queer people would be convicted of, you might have to undergo forced sterilization under eugenics laws.

David: When did that law finally come off the books?

John: Yeah, so the law went on the books in 1917 and it wasn’t until 1983 when it was erased from the books. I mean, it had sort of gone dormant, people weren’t being forcibly sterilized since, I don’t know when the last examples were, probably the 1930s, but it was still there on the books. Of course, not just gay men, but people with cognitive disabilities and people convicted of sex crimes.

John: Yeah, so it was a brutal time for LGBTQ Americans and it wasn’t like you could come out, you could say, in the 1950s and even the 1960s, I mean, you couldn’t let people publicly know that you were queer and just resume the life that you had before. It would change everything. For somebody like James Beard who relied on selling cookbooks to a  mainstream, somewhat conservative, audience of…

David: Mostly female.

A photograph of James Beard teaching cooking classes, featured in the podcast Talking With My Mouth Full Ep. 34: An Intimate Look at James Beard with John Birdsall.
: Sam Falk

John: …yeah, mostly female, although one of his accomplishments was that he broadened interest in American food to include men as well, partly because of his own presence, and in large degree because of the cooking classes that he conducted. A lot of men, sometimes with their wives would sign up for those. Even in the 1970s, after gay liberation had begun after the Stonewall riots of 1969, it wasn’t a safe thing to do by any means. Beard was a national figure by that point. He had so much to lose. It just really wasn’t a possibility, nor would his publisher or editors have allowed that to happen because it would have made his book sales plummet.

Renee: I think we forget, even though things aren’t equal by any stretch of the imagination today, we forget what you just said, which is that you couldn’t just make an announcement and continue on. Everything changed.

John: Right, everything changed. I mean, Craig Claiborne, for instance, came out publicly, really, at the end of his career. He was no longer food editor of The New York Times. In 1982, he wrote a memoir called A Feast Made for Laughter. Admittedly, he came out in a really awkward way, talking about spooning with his father when he was a boy growing up in Mississippi.

David: Oh my.

John: It was a strange and awkward revelation, but I think it does point to how difficult it was to do that. Of course, even if, in the 1970s, there was relatively more acceptance generally of gay people, of gay civil rights, by the early 1980s, the AIDS/HIV crisis had re-stigmatized gay people in the eyes of America. I mean, Beard died at the beginning of 1985. It was later that year that the revelations about Rock Hudson came out and people’s reaction to that wasn’t generally one of compassion, it was one of shock, just trying to deal with the idea of this great symbol of male sexuality in Hollywood, this great leading man. How could he have been gay? So, it was not an easy thing and it wasn’t really possible for someone who had as mainstream a presence as Beard just to casually come out.

A photo of James Beard and Julia Child, featured in the podcast Talking With My Mouth Full Ep. 34: An Intimate Look at James Beard with John Birdsall.
: James Beard Foundation

Beard and Julia Child

Renee: But another mainstream figure at the same time did get a lot more attention. Julia Child. They were contemporaries, but also, her name is much more common in households than James Beard.

John: Right. Yeah, I mean, Julia has this great, and rightfully so, this great, enduring legacy, and really, kind of a mythology. There’s been this great mythology about Julia and her contributions to cooking in America. And, as you say, James and Julia were contemporaries. When Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in 1961, Judith Jones, who was a great editor at Knopf, who had really championed Julia and Simca’s and Louisette Bertholle’s book, reached out to James Beard, who was the most famous food personality in America, certainly in New York City, and had asked if he would help to promote the book, really introduce Julia and Simca to the American food establishment, which he did really generously and helped to host a launch party for the book in New York City.

John: At that time, New York food media, cookbook publishing in America had a really tiny circle of gatekeepers. They were just a group of editors in New York City and it was very hard to crack that little circle and with an introduction from James Beard, these doors magically opened. And so James and Julia had a really deep friendship and almost a symbiotic relationship at the beginning where they both helped each other. James would have Julia teach some cooking classes at his cooking school at his house in Greenwich Village (below) as another way of introducing her to the New York food public. She was always grateful for that, but then as her fame rose, really, primarily through television…
A photograph of the James Beard Foundation building featured in the podcast Talking With My Mouth Full Ep. 34: An Intimate Look at James Beard with John Birdsall.
: Ken Goodman | James Beard Foundation

David: For “The French Chef.”

John: Yeah, “The French Chef.”

David: Which was the first one.

John: She really started to eclipse James and it was a difficult thing for him to see her star rise. He was jealous of her success. It was a struggle, even for someone as famous as James Beard, to make a living just writing cookbooks. And so if you could write cookbooks and also be on television, that’s where suddenly some serious money was a possibility, so he was envious of Julia’s financial success. I mean, Julia also had things that James didn’t, which was family money.

David: Yes, that’s true. Yes.

John: Her husband Paul’s pension from the US government.

Renee: Right. Safety.

John: Yes. So it allowed her things that he didn’t really have. She never did any commercial endorsements, in part because she just didn’t need to financially, whereas James…

Renee: Beard did.

John: He did. And as his fame grew and his expenses grew, he had this large household of employees, class assistants, and a couple of administrative assistants, he just had these enormous expenses, and so, yeah, there were very few companies that he turned down. To his credit, he did always turn down, there’s a company that made really bad cooking wine, and that was something that he refused to do, but I even found after his great 1972 book, James Beard’s American Cookery, cemented his late fame.

Julia’s take on Beard’s gayness

David: There are two questions I have about this relationship with Julia. Number one: What was Julia’s take on his being gay? Did she know? Did it affect how she reacted to him? The other question is: Why did she take off and why didn’t he take off? Because he was already famous when she came to America, but why didn’t he become as big and as popular and as beloved as she?

Betty Crocker's Picture Cookbook.

John: To address the second part first, I think, I mean, it was, of course, because of her great talent and personality, just this great force of personality that she would show on the camera. But also, I think as Americans’ taste in food changed, Julia really was lucky in a way that she seemed to really express America’s changing tastes in food in the 1960s. I mean, Beard had to struggle in the 1950s against this huge American industrial food…

David: Neutralization, yeah.

John: …yeah, food establishment. I mean, some of the best-selling cookbooks in American history were written to sell products. Still, one of the best-selling American cookbooks is the 1950 Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book.

David: I confess I have a copy.

John: I mean, as a vintage kind of object, it’s great.

David: Yeah. I don’t cook from it, but I do have it.

Renee: Mm-hmm.

John: Yeah, but obviously, we know there was no Betty Crocker. It was written by a test kitchen of women, home economists. It’s a book mostly about baking recipes. General Mills wanted to sell flour and so they created this image of American food as baking-heavy. To get back to Julia, yes, of course, she knew that James was gay. Julia was very progressive politically, as was James.

Images of Betty Crocker makeovers through the ages, featured in the podcast Talking With My Mouth Full Ep. 34: An Intimate Look at James Beard with John Birdsall.

David: Mm-hmm. They were.

Julia’s homophobia and rules of society

John: With the time that she lived and the upper-middle-class that she grew up in, there were strict rules about dealing with people who are gay, and the primary rule was that you just never talked about it. It was just never spoken about. Later in life, Julia would make, we can see them now as homophobic comments about gay people, especially in the 1970s when gay liberation was happening and the gay rights movement was really on display, especially in San Francisco, a city that she loved. And she was just very offended by that. People would say, “Well, she couldn’t have been homophobic because she was friends with James Beard,” and I think she was only able to be friends with James Beard because he played by the rules. I think it would have been considered boorish, really bad form, if you spoke about being gay in “polite society.”

David: But even that statement, “She can’t be homophobic because she’s friends with James Beard.” How many men and women do I know who are homophobic? They have their own internalized homophobia and they are gay, and so to say that she can’t be because she knows James Beard is a very naive way of addressing that issue.

John: Sure. Yeah, yeah. I mean, it’s like saying, “Oh, I can’t be racist. My best friend in college was black.”

David: Exactly, yeah.

John: There can easily be bias, even if you personally don’t feel like you are racist or homophobic.

David: This must have put a lot of pressure on Beard because he adored Julia, that’s very obvious, but at the same time, he had to skirt issues, he had to hold things in, he had to hold his tongue, and that just, I think, is an example of the dilemma he found himself in all of his life, especially with this woman who is so free and so open and so expressive. You talk about it in the book, he’s a huge character and very funny and very beloved, but he had to hold a lot of that in.

John: Yes, exactly. He did. He was also really skilled at creating a myth about himself.

David: Yes, he was.

John: He would tell lies about his past, his childhood, his upbringing, or he would shade them heavily.

Renee: Embellish them, if you will.

John: He didn’t get married to a woman. He didn’t pretend to have any romantic interest in women, which a lot of gay men ended up doing.

David: Yes, they did.

John: He would constantly punt. Women who bought his cookbooks, when they met him, some would say, “Oh, Mr. Beard, I’d be terrified to cook for you!” and “It’s a good thing that you never took a wife because what could she cook for the great James Beard?” and he would always punt and say, “Oh, yes. Who would marry me? I’m such an old committed bachelor, who would possibly marry me?”

John: A lot of experience for queer people, in the mid-20th century especially, was heavily coded. There were things that you would say in public, things you would say in society, that everyone agreed would skirt uncomfortable conversations. Then when you were alone in private with your queer circle of friends, your personality would be very different, of course, but there was an unbridgeable chasm between those two parts of your personality. There was no bleed-through.

A photo of the outside of The Stonewall Inn, featured in the podcast Talking With My Mouth Full Ep. 34: An Intimate Look at James Beard with John Birdsall.
: vacant

John: Except in Beard’s case, starting in the early 1970s, of course, Stonewall happened in late June 1969, and so the spirit of gay liberation was in the air and Beard takes a few tentative steps out of the closet and has a younger assistant for his cooking classes, a guy named Carl Jerome, who was definitely of the post-Stonewall generation. He didn’t hide who he was. He didn’t apologize for being gay. He was who he was. James found this fascinating, but also really terrifying. Around Carl, he started wearing blue jeans—he had to have them made specially because he was a large man—started wearing blue jeans and T-shirts. Some of his older friends and handlers, his editors, were just really horrified, like, “What are you doing? You’re going to destroy your career.” This is unseemly for James Beard to be doing this.

Renee: Well, and even that he had handlers, right? I can’t imagine how soul-crushing that would have been.

John: Right. I mean, it’s nothing he wasn’t used to, however. He wrote his first cookbook, Hors D’oeuvres and Canapes, in 1940. By 1949, when he wrote his fourth book, which is The Fireside Cook Book, you can really see an editor and a publishing house really taking James’s image in hand and really cultivating this professorial, avuncular image for James Beard. In his earlier books, in his first three books that he did for Barrows, you can see James’s authentic voice. You can hear it. It’s sort of fun and sassy and he’s kind of campy and even making a few sexual allusions in some jokes. And by 1949, when Simon & Schuster publishes The Fireside Cook Book, that’s when you start to see the James Beard that we know from later years. He’d be wearing tweeds and the bow ties and he’s a serious lover of wine and food, the “Dean of American Cookery,” as he was known.

A photo of James Beard with a fork bowtie, featured int the podcast Talking With My Mouth Full Ep. 34: An Intimate Look at James Beard with John Birdsall. : PBS

Beard and his bowties

David: This is an interesting question. I always see him in a bow tie. Was that an affectation that he put on as a way of sort of being the Dean of American Cookery based upon what people are saying, or was it just was it a sartorial choice of his own?

John: I think he liked the look. He wasn’t just wearing bow ties, but he was wearing quite loud bow ties.

David: Yes, he did. It had to come out somewhere.

John: Yeah, yeah, exactly. As I said, he was used to having this coded existence, but there are little clues that a man could float, a little wink and a nod. He had a great friend, another cookbook author, Helen Evans Brown, who lived in Pasadena, and James would often go and visit Helen and her husband, Phillip, and stay with them in Pasadena and they would go shop in Japantown in L.A. and there was one Japanese shop that Helen and James loved and that’s where he bought his first signature bow ties, his silk bow ties. Later, he would buy beautiful silk patterns and have his assistant—his houseman, as he called him—Clay Triplette sew them for him. So yeah, I think the bow tie is a really interesting symbol for James because it is a very conservative, avuncular, old-fashioned garment, but made out of some sort of sparkling tie silk in bright pink or blue or orange. There’s a bit of a nod to his authentic personality.

Renee: I’m sad that we were deprived of more of that in his personality.

John: Yeah, yeah, exactly. In his private socializing, it’s, of course, there. He lived in Greenwich Village for a reason, like a lot of primarily gay men in the 1950s and ’60s. It was a place where you could relatively let your hair down in your off-hours and socialize, but yeah, the public who knew James from cookbooks and from the endless cooking demonstrations that he did around the country, he would travel and not just promote his own books and cooking demos in department stores and supermarkets, but for a long time promoted French Champagne and French Cognac, and so he’d be flambéing things in department stores for women. Yeah, I do think about what would have been possible, not only for James personally, but for American food in general, if James had been freer to be more expressive, to be more relaxed with his public image.

Beard and plagiarism, large and small

Renee: Yeah. Also, perhaps his cooking, including his recipes. It seems that some of his recipes were not entirely his own, perhaps a result of him having felt like he had to fit a box. But he was known to borrow, correct?

David: Yeah, there was some chicanery there.

John: He was infamous for his borrowing of recipes. I mean, it ended friendships. At one point late in his life, he was involved in a lawsuit with Richard Olney. A mentor of Beard’s had plagiarized recipes of Olney’s that he had shared with Beard before Simple French Food came out. There was a settlement outside of court. Beard wasn’t involved with the financial settlement, but it was a huge embarrassment at the end of his career.

John: But yeah, I mentioned Helen Evans Brown, his friend in Pasadena, was a really brilliant cookbook author and food writer just full of these original ideas. They collaborated on a book in 1955 on outdoor cooking, grilling, and barbecuing, and at the same time that they were kind of collaborating and coming up with recipes, James took some of those recipes and published them under his name for a different publisher.

David: Oh my gosh.

John: You can just see her fury in letters. They both had the same literary agent, John Schaffner, and in letters to John Schaffner, Helen Evans Brown is, “I can’t believe he did that. How dare he?” To James, Helen is much more circumspect, like, “Oh, dear, I think you made a mistake…I think you may have…” Of course, he lied about it and said, “Oh, yes, that was in a stack of recipes that I sent to the typist and didn’t intend to.” That also speaks to how much more difficult it was to be a food writer, to be a cookbook author, as a woman as opposed to a man. I mean, it was difficult for a man to make a living, but it was even harder for women like Helen Evans Brown.

John: But at the same time, he may have kind of borrowed and plagiarized from people he knew, from friends. He also plagiarized himself incessantly, but he also really promoted his friends, so at the same time that he was stealing Helen’s recipes, he was really promoting her to food editors in New York, and I think he felt in his mind he had the kind of friendship with Helen that would allow for little transgressions like that because the sum of it was they were helping each other, they were trying to advance each other’s careers.

“I want to be alone”

David: What I find fascinating is here is a man who was known as the Dean of American Cookery. He was famous. He had a television show, many, many cookbooks, and he really cemented the idea of seasonal eating, eating simply. He really put American cuisine on the map long before any of these chefs, Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower, and any of them. He did it first. But yet, you talk in the book that toward the end of his life, he really just wanted to disappear. Turn his face to the wall and disappear. And that, to me, is so sad. Why do you think that is, after all he created, all he did, that he felt that way in the end?

John: I think at the end of his life, he felt he hadn’t really accomplished that much. I mean, for one thing, he had kind of lifelong battles with depression. I think he really tried to medicate that away, certainly with food and drinking. He would also take tranquilizers, Miltowns, which were a really sort of popular tranquilizer in the 1950s. He’d be popping Miltowns and drinking and trying to deal with not only the stress of his career, but just this deep, nagging depression that would just come and swallow him up a few times every year. I think as he got older, it was harder to push that away. It was harder to distract himself in the work and deadlines and just push that away.

John: I think perhaps he felt remorse for some of the things that he had done, some of the mistakes that he had made, but I think he looked around in the late 1970s and saw that American food and the American food industry and food media had really kind of moved on from him. He had a brilliant career primarily in the 1950s and 1960s. By 1972, when he wrote American Cookery, it was sort of a comeback for him. There were so many changes in society and in food in the United States that James Beard, even then, was sort of a relic.

His lasting impact on younger chefs

John: Then in the late 1970s, American food media is really not interested in the kind of home cooking that Beard and even Julia Child really taught Americans to do with such brilliance. Then all of a sudden, chefs and restaurants became the sexy focus of American food media. By the late 1970s, certainly in the early 1980s, it was the rise of the rockstar chef in America and people at home, home cooks wanted to try to make restaurant food. James Beard’s books and a lot of his work seemed kind of old-fashioned.

An illustration of James Beard in The Last Supper, featured in the podcast Talking With My Mouth Full Ep. 34: An Intimate Look at James Beard with John Birdsall. : Ed Lam

John: At the same time, James was really inspiring that younger generation of chefs. Really, one of the most famous menus at Chez Panisse was in 1976, the Northern California Regional Dinner cooked by Jeremiah Tower. Chez Panisse, in its earlier years, the whole menu was written in French, and especially Jeremiah Tower had a lot of interest in cooking French food, and under Beard’s influence, Jeremiah really wanted to change the language of the menu, put it in English, but also do a dinner that was devoted to food that was sourced in Northern California. So corn soup with corn from Mendocino and trout from Big Sur.

John: Yeah, Alice Waters told me that she felt like this was a huge influence on Jeremiah. She herself was really influenced by Beard’s 1964 book, Delights and Prejudices, where Beard talks about growing up on the coast of Oregon and going out and foraging blackberries and all of those wonderful berries in the Northwest. Salmon. It was a very distilled sense of eating in a particular landscape and that was definitely one of Alice Waters’ inspirations. So he became obsolete in a way, but his ideas, the things that he planted, were really sprouting for this younger generation of chefs.

Renee: I don’t think many people realize they have Beard to thank for that.

John: Yeah. He’s become really forgotten in many ways. I mean, I think his name has really primarily been kept alive because of the James Beard Awards and the James Beard Foundation.

The inside of the dining room at the James Beard house featured in the podcast Talking With My Mouth Full Ep. 34: An Intimate Look at James Beard with John Birdsall. : Vue Magazine

David: Exactly.

John: If you asked even a lot of American chefs what recipes James Beard is known for, not that many people would be able to come up with anything.

David: I always think of the onion sandwich. That’s what I think of.

John: Right, right.

David: It’s the only one that I can think of.

John: Right, which went through all those different names and iterations as it evolved.

The legacy of James Beard

David: What’s interesting, and I think what’s so great about the book, is here’s Beard, a complicated man, very complicated man, like all of us are, and you really capture all of that, and of course, the central theme about this as how he is gay and what that meant and the implications of that and how that influenced and how it just took root in his life, which is missing from, I think, all of the other biographies. This is bringing him back to center stage. Especially now during the pandemic, so many people have turned to home cooking and home baking, and there’s so much less attention from restaurants because so many of them were closed.

David: I think the debt we owe to him, you wrote beautifully when you say, “If you live in the United States and believe in local food, rely on farmer’s markets and produce stands to supply flavor and seasonal delights to your cooking, if you take for granted access to milk, butter, and cheese produced in human-scale lots, bakers who employ patience and their hands, and American wines expressive of soil and tradition, you owe a debt to James Beard.” I think the book is a great reminder of that, John.

John: Thank you so much.

Renee: It is incredible. And so elucidating.

David: John, thank you so much for stopping by. We really appreciate it.

John: Ah, it’s been my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Renee: Thank you, John.

David: John Birdsall left a longtime career as a restaurant cook and chef to write about food. The winner of two James Beard Awards for food and culture writing, he’s written for Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Los Angeles Times, and taught culinary writing at the San Francisco Cooking School. You can find John on Twitter and Instagram at john_birdsall.

David: Renee, I think it’s so poignant to hear these stories about Beard. Of course, I think most people in the food world nowadays know that Beard was gay, but as a gay man myself, I can’t imagine having to keep my light under a bushel. I write about The One, I write about being gay, I write about our life together, I have photographs of us on social media. Of course, we didn’t have social media back then, but he couldn’t do any of that in his writing, and to me, that’s so sad.

David and The One photo.

Renee: Yeah. What gets me is just how devastating an effect it takes on a person to constantly feel as though they’re judged, as though they can’t be who they are. And I think it’s one thing for someone like me who doesn’t have this life experience, to read about it and be saddened and horrified, but then I go about my day and my life.

David: And it’s not part of it.

Renee: Exactly. Every moment. I think we’ve all had experiences where for some intrinsic part of us, we have been criticized and made to feel less than.

David: What’s hard, too, I think, and I’ve experienced this in my life and I know The One has, too, the amount of energy it takes not to be yourself.

Renee: Absolutely.

David: It’s exhausting. I hope that the book gives people a better understanding of James Beard, maybe a bit more compassion for what he went through, and at the same time, maybe a bit more understanding of the dilemma that a lot of LGBTQ people experience. That would be the greatest gift of all with the book.

Renee: Yeah. Absolutely. Honestly, I don’t know how that cannot happen.

David: This podcast is produced by Overit Studios and our producer is the deeply appreciated Adam Clairmont. You can reach Adam and Overit Studios at Remember to subscribe to Talking With My Mouth Full wherever you download your favorite podcasts, and if you like what you hear and want to support us, consider leaving a review and rating on Apple Podcasts. Chow!

Renee: Chow!

About David Leite

I count myself lucky to have received three James Beard Awards for my writing as well as for Leite’s Culinaria. My work has also appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and more.

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