The man who ate too much
“Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.”James Beard (1903-1985)
When one was a child people used to say to you,"you are not old enough to remember..."You in most instances, wouldn´t have the vaguest notion of who or what they were referring to. When you get to my age history repeats itself and you start saying the very same thing to those much younger than yourself. If I were to mention names such as Philip Harben, Jane Grigson, Fanny Cradock, Graham Kerr, Marguerite Patten or Robert Carrier my recipients would be unlikely to prick up their ears.
The year is 1985, I was coming to terms with who I was and where I was going in my life, I certainly had never heard of James Beard who had just died in his native America.I wonder how many of you now are familiar with the name James Beard,The James Beard Foundation Awards are annual awards presented by the James Beard Foundation to recognize culinary professionals.The awards recognize chefs, restaurateurs, authors and journalists each year, scheduled around James Beard's May 5th birthday. Known as the Dean of American Cookery,in the 1940s, James Beard hosted the first cooking programmme in the history of television. The author of twenty-two cookbooks and many magazine and newspaper articles, he paved the way for today's celebrity chefs.But not without a personal
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 became the jovial bachelor uncle presiding over America’s kitchens for nearly four decades.Beard’s struggles as a closeted gay
man directly influenced his creation of a new "American" cuisine.
Starting in the 1920s, Beard escaped loneliness and banishment by traveling abroad to places where people ate for pleasure, not utility, and found acceptance at home by crafting an American ethos of food likewise built on passion and delight.From the beginning, his was a life of secrets.It was his job to share gastronomic pleasure with the public, but he had to keep his own private desires out of sight. From a young age he knew he liked boys, not girls. He sensed that his mother Elizabeth had her own thwarted love for someone of the same sex. Meanwhile, although he didn’t know it, his father had a mistress on the side who had borne a child. He was the queer son of a queer mother, and he remembered her through the dishes he cooked.I first learned about John Birdsall´s an expansive biography and meditation on queer food a few years ago, but only got around to obtaining a copy and reading it last year.In the following transcript I
have used quotes and extracts from Birdsall´s engaging book.
The book opens on a train ride to the Oregon coast, as Elizabeth and James travel to the seaside town of Gearhart, northwest of Portland. This is where they spent their summers, and where Elizabeth kept a cottage she owned separately from her husband and James´s father John. Unlike the wealthy Portlanders who summered at Gearhart, they had work to do; Elizabeth ran a catering business serving summer visitors, and young son James assisted.
In this early scene, Beard eagerly awaits the unpacking of lunch on this long railway trip, thinking of those rich treats immured in wax paper, “all of it lavish yet constrained” — a phrase that might well sum up the duality of his later years. He would go on to become a public figure whose real identity was never truly known, haunted by the youthful trauma of expulsion from a former progressive college for “an act of oral indecency” with a male professor and ever conscious of the fine line in society that allowed for homosexuality only “as long as it stayed enigmatic and implied.” Food was a stand-in it seems for other experiences and emotions. Birdsall lingers on moments like a discovery of spring peas in a London market, which Beard took home, "boiled swiftly, and dipped whole in their pods into melted butter and then his mouth, sucking out the peas: a map of cravings satisfied in private.” After failing to make a career in theatre, Beard found his logical family in New York, the wealthy, urbane gay men whom the playwright Arthur Laurents called “silver and china queens”; they hosted private cocktail parties in lieu of risking their reputations at bars where any sign of queerness might be labelled “disorderly conduct.” Beard, with little money of his own but a gift for cooking and making people laugh, took on a role somewhere between gofer and impresario, mixing drinks, "passing around nubs of fried battered squab as hors d’oeuvres and strategically flitting in and out of the glittering conversation".His talents were noted; a formal catering company was formed; and then came the requests from publishers for cookbooks. The deadlines were impossible, the financial compensation meagre, but the name James Beard went out into the world, as did his notion of what an "American" cuisine could be, when “cuisine” was still a word reserved for the feats of the French. He won the trust of readers as an “unfussy bon vivant, as much in love with a good club sandwich as he was with veal Oscar,” who decried the “phony gentility of the gourmet crowd” and insisted on touching food with his bare hands.Beard’s home was just a stroll away from the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, where a police raid in 1969 sparked a revolt that became a flash point for the gay rights movement. What happened on Christopher Street that week left marks as defining and indelible as a permanent burn scar. The revolt launched the popular queer civil rights movement. That week in 1969 changed forever the life of Greenwich Village, along with the comfortable, older, professional, closeted homosexuals like Beard and his friends. They were men, mostly, who had built stable lives in the West Village. They had their closet brunches and dinner parties, and the last thing they needed was a lot of "black and Latino kids—also drag queens and dirty rebellious types—taking the A train down from Harlem and the Bronx and starting trouble that would attract even more police". Queer men and women of Beard´s generation in the Village had everything to lose and weren’t convinced they had anything to gain. In October 1969, the month the Stonewall Inn shut down, Time magazine ran a cover story called “The Homosexual in America.” “Their new militancy makes other citizens edgy,” Time wrote, “and it can be shrill.” He wasn’t quite ready for it. After decades of public disguise, it took audacity for him to show a student from his cooking classes his collection of pillows that he’d needlepointed himself; the revelation of this private hobby is brief, but one of the book’s most moving passages.By 1970, America’s interest in food had finally progressed from the stale international haute cuisine of Julia Child´s 1950s—there was more curiousity about the outside world, and people were willing to spend more on food and travel than ever before. Three gay guys—Beard, Richard Olney, and Craig Claiborne—would become the architects of modern food in America. You can see their influence today in the cooking of Thomas Keller and Daniel Patterson and in the food Alice Waters has overseen in four decades of her menus at Chez Panisse. Food that takes pleasure seriously, as an end in itself, and forming backbone of gayfood writers who shaped modern American food.
"Beard convinced a nation that American food is something ineluctably large, hewn from ingredients as pristine as a virgin forest".
It’s the story of how cooking, gathering with food, and eating in coded public spaces helped a random aggregate of mainstream society’s “freaks” and “deviants” build community in the harshly punitive decades after World War II. A story about the courage it took to publicly declare themselves with food".
Drawing on his own time of coming out and becoming a restaurant cook in the 1980s in San Francisco, WHAT IS QUEER FOOD? looks at this historical act of self-definition through food, at cooking, claiming space, eating in public, and nurturing family as they defined it. It’s a tribute to the queer ancestors; how a traditionally feared and disdained minority used food to find its voice and its power.