In researching The Man Who Ate Too Much, biographer John Birdsall uncovered James Beard’s letters and diaries, and got more than a glimpse into the semi-secret queer life of America’s most celebrated cook.

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Credit: Photo of James Beard by Bob Sibilia / Photo of John Birdsall by Bart Nagel

This story is part of "Queer As Food," a series that explores the role of food in LGBTQ+ communities.

I kept coming back to James Beard as this anchor figure in American food and how the restrictions of the time meant that all of his queerness ended up in his food and in his books, but in a way that was completely masked. All this pent-up energy and power and longing for pleasure was in a lot of the recipes that he developed and in many of the books that he wrote. So it kind of started me on this path of wanting to research Beard, and specifically his private life, his queer life that he couldn't be explicit about with the general public.

It was like the food that I knew from my gay “uncles” Pat and Lou, who were our neighbors. It was food that had no responsibility but to invoke enjoyment and to create this extremely pleasurable experience. It wasn't about nutrition. It wasn't about moderately priced ingredients.

You know, my mom had always shopped with a budget and of course, there were the expensive brand items that she would never let us put in the cart because they were just too expensive. But there were no such restrictions with Pat and Lou. It was about creating—for me as a kid—a very striking and unusual sense of food; it was about intensity and delight and creating a moment.

There are two earlier biographies of James Beard. He died in 1985, and the first biography, the Evan Jones one that Judith Jones had a big part in putting together, was published in 1990. And then Robert Clark's biography of James Beard came out in 1994. I spoke to Robert Clark when I was researching The Man Who Ate Too Much. You know, everyone was essentially still alive and he had access to them to interview who had done James. And there was still a lot of reticence about talking about his queerness, talking about his gay life.

A lot of the research for the book was understanding those decades in American history, especially after World War II when American society, American politics became very, very conservative and there were very strict gender roles. 1920s and '30s were a time in America when gender roles were kind of easing.

In places in New York City, it was possible to be openly queer in a circumscribed way, but in a way where everyone in the neighborhood would kind know that you were queer, and you were just part of the local scene, part of the local culture. And then after the Second World War, the door kind of slammed shut. It was a really perilous time for LGBTQ Americans.

And so this extremely complicated coded life was the way that people could survive with completely compartmentalized lives, where you could express your queerness in certain places at certain times with usually a very small circle of friends, and everywhere else, you might speak a coded language if you thought you were in the presence of someone who you suspected as queer. But the consequences of being exposed, of being outed were so dire that there was a tremendous amount of fear that kept people silent and living really secret lives.

I was fascinated in Beard's case. It wasn't an open secret to anyone who knew him, but there were strict rules. You knew that you would deny it if somebody from outside the circle asked you about it. So after Beard's death, some of his closest friends still enforced that. When they were speaking with Robert Clark, for instance, they would minimize James's queerness, say, "Oh, it wasn't really important." You know, he never really talked about it.

I know that there were a lot of destroyed letters and “incriminating” documents. A lot of the research was reconstructing, taking the clues that I had and letters that had been overlooked when the earlier bios were done that were very revealing about his secret life.

Whenever James would be traveling, which was much of the time—he made a couple of big trips to Europe every year—he would write about what he was eating and the men who caught his eye. So they're very intimate and revealing letters about his queer life. From there, I researched queer history, not only in New York City but in Paris in, say, the 1950s when James was there, in Spain, and even in Mexico City where he traveled in 1956 and sort of had an affair.

It was a blend of tracking down archival Beard materials and then immersing myself in the history of food and cookbooks at the time and also history of queerness. There aren't a whole lot of people who are still alive who knew James, but I was fortunate enough to be able to speak to a number of people. I had a lot of great information from a man named Carl Jerome who was James's assistant for four years in the 1970s and is gay as well. James had fallen in love with him and, so, he had tremendously revealing things to say, and could also pass along stories and things that James had told him from his younger life, like going to a queer brothel in Paris in 1921 when he was 19, stories like that. So that was really, really valuable information.

At the Fales Library at NYU, they have James's datebooks, essentially for the entire decade of the 1950s. When he traveled, he used them as his diary. He'd lists everything he ate and then also who he was seeing. I pored over those. His handwriting is so hard to decipher, so that was a major chunk of time just sitting with his datebooks and trying to make sense of them. But they yielded real gems of clues that I could follow, people and places and things like that.

James's second book, published in 1941, was called Cook It Outdoors and it was published by M. Barrows. They churned out a lot of books and, obviously, the editing process was not very rigorous. From a cookbook reader’s perspective, maybe it's not ideal, but for me it was great because James's voice wasn't edited out of the text.

That book really gives a sense of his voice and to me, it's a strikingly queer voice. You know, you really hear him. He says fabulous a lot. He'll use these really colorful metaphors. He's funny, he's relaxed. At one point, he's describing garlic and he sort of flirts with making like a sexual joke about it. That garlic is like a rough-houser. You know, somebody who's fun to have around occasionally. I just get this image that he's thinking of some sort of sexual encounter he's had.

Later on, especially when he did The Fireside Cook Book with Simon & Schuster in 1949, they had really top-notch editors and production, and you can see his queer voice just gets completely altered. It's just gone. And the voice of the James Beard that we know from the later books is there. There's definitely a personality, but it's filtered. He's really becoming the Dean of American Cooking. He's this sort of bachelor expert, a bon vivant instead of this colorful, flamboyant, queer-like auntie in the kitchen.

As told to Mary-Frances Heck. Interview edited and condensed for clarity.