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Author and top chef James A. Beard in the kitchen
James Beard in 1972
Photo by Arthur Schatz/Life Magazine/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

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To Find Hope in American Cooking, James Beard Looked to the West Coast

In an excerpt from The Man Who Ate Too Much, the culinary icon returns to his hometown and begins to articulate his vision for American cuisine

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James Beard looms large in the American culinary canon. The name is now synonymous with the awards, known as the highest honors in American food, and the foundation behind them. But before his death in 1985, well before the existence of the foundation and the awards, Beard was a culinary icon. In The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard, John Birdsall tells Beard’s life story, highlighting how Beard’s queerness contributed to the concept of American cuisine he introduced to a generation of cooks.

Beard’s ascent to food-world fame wasn’t immediate. He came to food after an attempt at a life as a performer, and following a stint in catering and a gig hosting his own cooking show, Beard’s early cookbooks weren’t smash hits, his point of view not yet fully evolved. In this excerpt from The Man Who Ate Too Much, Beard embarks on a cookbook-planning trip through the American West, including his hometown of Portland, Oregon, with new friend and collaborator Helen Evans Brown and her husband, Philip. It’s there, after a whirlwind 25 days of eating (which read as especially envy inducing now), that Beard begins to define American cuisine for himself and, eventually, the country. — Monica Burton

A book cover with a line drawing of a man in a apron and bowtie with a glass of wine and a plate of food and the title The Man Who Ate Too Much in colorful typography
The Man Who Ate Too Much is out on October 6; buy it at Amazon or Bookshop.

American cooks in the early 1950s were in the grip of frenzy. Shiny new grills and rotisserie gadgets, advertised like cars, loaded with the latest features, were everywhere. Outdoor equipment and appliance manufacturers rushed to market with portable backyard barbecues and plug-in kitchen roasters, meant to give Americans everywhere — even dwellers in tight city apartments — an approximate taste of grilled patio meat.

Postwar technology and American manufacturing prowess propelled infrared broilers such as the Cal Dek and the Broil-Quik. An Air Force officer, Brigadier General Harold A. Bartron, retired to Southern California in 1948 and spent his time in tactical study of a proprietary rotisserie with a self-balancing spit. He named it the Bartron Grill.

There was the Smokadero stove and Big Boy barbecue. There were enclosed vertical grills with radiant heat, hibachis from post-occupation Japan, and the Skotch Grill, a portable barbecue with a red tartan design that looked like an ice bucket.

In New York City, the high-end adventure outfitter Abercrombie and Fitch and the kitchen emporiums of big department stores did a bustling business in these new symbols of postwar meat consumption. There was even an Upper East Side shop solely dedicated to them, Smoke Cookery, Inc. on East Fiftieth Street. The only trouble was that many buyers of these shiny new grown-up toys had no clue how to cook in them.

For weeks in the spring of 1953, Helen tested electric broiler recipes, an assignment from Hildegarde Popper, food editor of House & Garden magazine, for a story called “Everyday Broils.” A few broiler and rotisserie manufacturers sent their new models to Armada Drive for Helen to try.

“The subject turns out to be a huge one,” Helen wrote Popper; she had enough material to break the story into two parts. “Jim Beard, of cook book fame, was here when my rotisserie arrived,” she told Popper, “and he was a great help to me.”

Word got around the New York editor pool. Suddenly, Helen and James seemed the ideal collaborators, storywise, to cover the new subject of grill and rotisserie cooking: West Coast and East, female and male, California suburban patio cook and Manhattan bachelor gourmet.

Meanwhile, cookbook publishing was surging. Doubleday became the first house to hire a fulltime editor, Clara Claasen, to fill its stable with cookery authors.

Schaffner took Claasen to lunch to discuss how he might be able to help. “She is very much interested in the idea of an outdoors cookbook,” he wrote to Helen afterward. “This would combine barbecue, picnic, sandwich, campfire and every other aspect of outdoor eating.” Schaffner and Claasen lunched again. James and Helen’s “cooks’ controversy” idea had run out of gas (Schaffner hated the idea anyway, especially after reading first drafts of a few Beard–Brown “letters”), so Schaffner managed to steer Claasen toward a different kind of collaboration for his two clients.

In November 1953, Helen flew to New York. She and Schaffner met with Claasen at the Doubleday offices. On a handshake, in the absence of James (who only the day before had returned from France on the Queen Elizabeth), they decided on a collaboration: an outdoor cookery book to be authored by Helen Evans Brown and James A. Beard.

Everyone was happy: Schaffner for nailing a deal for two clients at once; Claasen for bringing new talent to Doubleday. Helen was getting what she needed: a book with a major publisher. James was getting what he wanted: a reason to get even closer to Helen. Perhaps this was only the first in a long future of collaborations; they might one day even open a kitchen shop together and sell a line of their own jams and condiments. The possibilities were endless.

Claasen was eager to draw up a formal contract. All she needed from Helen and James was an outline.

Under the glowing cabin lights of a westbound red-eye flight on April 3, 1954, James found himself eerily alone. TWA’s Super Constellation was an enormous propliner with seats for nearly a hundred passengers; that night, James was one of only four. He planned to rendezvous with the Browns in San Francisco later that week, but only after he took five days on his own in the city he’d loved as a boy. From there, the three of them would embark on a weeks-long research trip in the Browns’ Coronet convertible, stopping at wineries and cheese factories throughout Northern California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. Helen needed to do research for a magazine article she’d long wanted to write. She and Philip had asked James to join them five months earlier, in December 1953.

Nearly a decade after the end of the war, San Francisco was a place of resuscitated glamour, with much of the shimmer and confidence James had known in the city of his youth, when he and Elizabeth would ride the trains of the Shasta Route south.

His plane landed in drizzling rain. For his first luncheon of the trip, James chose a place of old comfort: the dim, wood-paneled Fly Trap on Sutter Street. He wore a suit of windowpane-check tweed (the jacket button straining above his stomach, his thin bow tie slightly askew), eating cold, cracked Dungeness and sautéed sand dabs. The stationery in his room at the Palace had an engraving across the top, an illustration of pioneers trudging next to oxen pulling a Conestoga wagon. Above them floated an apparition: the hotel’s neoclassical façade rising from the fog. “At the end of the trail,” it read, “stands the Palace Hotel.” James imagined himself the son of the pioneer he’d fancied his father to be. Was he now at the end of something or the beginning?

A woman holding a skewer of meat in a kitchen
Helen Evans Brown
Courtesy W.W. Norton

He spent his days and nights eating: A luncheon of poulet sauté with Dr. A. L. Van Meter of the San Francisco branch of the Wine and Food Society (they had met on the French wine junket in 1949); dinner at the Pacific Heights home of Frank Timberlake, vice president of Guittard Chocolate; a trip to San Jose to tour the Almaden Winery and meet its owner, Louis Benoist, over a marvelous lunch of pâté, asparagus mousseline, and an omelet. James dined at the Mark Hopkins with Bess Whitcomb, his abiding mentor from the old Portland Civic Theatre days — she lived in Berkeley now and taught drama at a small college. She wore her silver hair in a short crop; her gaze was warm and deep as ever.

Helen and Philip arrived on Sunday, and on Monday the tour began with a day trip. Philip drove the Coronet across the Golden Gate Bridge north to the Napa Valley, with Helen riding shotgun and James colonizing the bench seat in back. The afternoon temperature crested in the mid-seventies and the hills were still green from winter rain. Masses of yellow wild-mustard flowers filled the vineyards. They tasted at the big four — Inglenook, Beaulieu, Charles Krug, and Louis Martini — and lunched with a winery publicist on ravioli, chicken with mushrooms, and small, sweet spring peas. James kept a detailed record of their meals in his datebook. Elena Zelayeta, the San Francisco cookbook author and radio personality, cooked them enchiladas suizas and chiffon cake.

Next day they crossed the bridge again but swung west from Highway 101 to visit the farm town of Tomales, not much more than a main street of stores and a filling station. Among the rise of green hills dotted with cows, at the farm and creamery of Louis Bononci, James had his first taste of Teleme, a washed-rind cheese with a subtly elastic texture and milky tang. Within its thin crust dusted with rice flour, James recognized the richness and polish of an old French cheese, crafted in an American setting of rusted pickups and ranchers perched on stools at diner counters. It stirred his senses and revived his love for green meadows with the cool, damp feel of Pacific fog lurking somewhere off the coast.

Philip drove west to the shore of fingerlike Tomales Bay, where they lunched on abalone and a smorgasbord that included the local Jack cheese and even more Teleme.

The road stretched north along the coast: to Langlois, Oregon, with its green, tree-flocked hills converging in a shallow valley, where they stopped at Hans Hansen’s experimental Star Ranch. Born in Denmark, Hansen spent decades making Cheddar. In 1939, with scientists at Iowa State University and Oregon State College, Hansen had begun experimenting with what would be known as Langlois Blue Vein Cheese, a homogenized cows’-milk blue inoculated with Roquefort mold spores. (Production would eventually move to Iowa, where the cheese would be known as Maytag Blue.)

They hit Reedsport, Coquille, Coos Bay, Newport, Cloverdale, Bandon, and Tillamook. They stopped at cheese factories, candy shops, butchers’ counters, produce stands, and markets. Already stuffed with suitcases, the Coronet’s trunk became jammed with wine bottles and jars of honey and preserves; packets of sausage, dried fruit, nuts, and candy. The backseat around James filled up with bottles that rolled and clinked together on turns, with apples, tangerines, filberts, pears, and butcher-paper packets of sliced cured meat, smoked oysters, and hunks of Cheddar. The car had become a mad ark of food. James hauled anything regional and precious on board, as if later it would all prove to have been a myth if he didn’t carry some away as proof that it existed.

In Tualatin, south of Portland, they dropped in on James’s old friends from theater days, Mabelle and Ralph Jeffcott. To a crowd that included Mary Hamblet and her ailing mother, Grammie, Mabelle served baked shad and jellied salad, apple crisp, and the homemade graham bread — molasses-sweet and impossibly light — that was famous among her friends.

They lunched on fried razor clams and coleslaw at the Crab Broiler in Astoria and had martinis, kippered tuna, salmon cheeks, and Indian pudding at the Seaside cottage of James’s beloved friend Harvey Welch.

In Gearhart, James trudged out to Strawberry Knoll, walked across the dunes and onto the beach. He regarded Tillamook Head, just as he did as a boy at the start of summers. He felt a weird convergence of past and present: the sting of sand whipping his face and the smell of charred driftwood lingering in the rock-circled dugout pits of ancient cookouts.

For James, the Northwest displayed a delightfully slouchy elegance he’d almost forgotten about in New York. It had taste without snobbery. At the Pancake House in Portland, they brunched on Swedish pancakes with glasses of buttermilk and French 75 cocktails — the sort of high–low mix he had aimed for at Lucky Pierre. Why did Easterners have so much trouble grasping the idea?

Before a meal of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, they sipped a simple pheasant broth that, dolled up with half a dozen gaudy garnishes and called Consommé Louis-Philippe, would have been the jewel of Jack and Charlie’s “21” in New York. Food here had honesty. It declared what it was. Like James, it was anti-“gourmet.” Its purity was the ultimate elegance.

Thus far, James had fumbled at articulating a true American cooking. He’d taken rustic French dishes, called them by English names, and substituted American ingredients. There was something crude about such an approach. This trip had showed him American food made on French models — Gamay grapes and Roquefort spores and cheeses modeled on Camembert and Emmenthaler that tasted wonderful and were reaching for unique expressions, not just impersonating European originals. It had given James a clearer vision of American food taking root in the places it grew.

As a boy, he had glimpsed this with Chinese cooking, how a relative of the Kan family, a rural missionary, adapted her cooking to the ingredients at hand in the Oregon countryside. How her Chinese dishes took root there, blossomed into something new; how they became American.

They trekked to Seattle, where the Browns went to a hotel and James stayed with John Conway, his theater-director friend from the Carnegie Institute days. John’s wife, Dorothy, was a photographer. She shot formal portraits of James and Helen in the Conways’ kitchen — maybe Doubleday would use one as the author photo for the outdoor cookbook. They took an aerial tour of oyster beds and wandered Pike’s Place Market.

Philip then steered the Coronet eastward across Washington, through the town of Cashmere in the foothills of the Cascades, where they stopped at a diner for cube steak, cottage cheese, and pie that James noted as “wonderful” in his datebook. In Idaho, at a place called Templin’s Grill near Coeur d’Alene, they found excellent steak and hash browns. There was a Basque place along the way that made jellied beef sausage, and a diner in Idaho Falls with “fabulous” fried chicken and, as James scribbled in his daybook, “biscuits light as a feather.” The fried hearts and giblets were so delicious they bought a five-pound sack to stuff in the hotel fridge and eat in the car next day for lunch.

The squat, industrial-looking Star Valley Swiss Cheese Factory in Thayne, Wyoming, with a backdrop of snow on the Wellsville Mountains, produced what James thought was the best Emmenthaler-style cheese he’d tasted outside of France, but this was American cheese. They had delicious planked steak and rhubarb tart in Salt Lake City, but bad fried chicken and awful pie in Winnemucca, Nevada, was the beginning of a sad coda to their journey.

Soon they were in Virginia City, home of Lucius Beebe — brilliant, bitchy, rich, alcoholic Lucius Beebe, dear friend to Jeanne Owen and the Browns and dismissive of James from the minute they met in New York City fifteen years back.

Lucius enjoyed the life of a magnifico in the nabob splendor of the Comstock Lode, among the graceful wooden neo-Renaissance mansions, peeling in the searing Nevada sun, built by nineteenth-century silver barons. His husband in all respects, save the marriage license and church wedding, was Chuck Clegg. Chuck was quarterback-handsome and courtly, in contrast to bloated, prickly Lucius. Helen and Philip were fond of them. They wanted to linger for a few days, which turned into four days of heavy drinking and blasting wit, much of it at James’s expense.

“Drinks, Steaks, Drinks!” James wrote in his daybook. He disliked Virginia City, with its steep hills one couldn’t climb without wheezing. One day, they all had a picnic on the scrubby flank of a hill, under a brutal sun. Chuck and Lucius brought a Victorian hamper filled with fine china plates, Austrian crystal, silver, and antique damask napkins. They ate cold boned leg of lamb and beans cooked with port. They lingered so long, over so many bottles of Champagne, that James’s head became badly sunburned. Back at the motel, Philip, drunk, tried splashing James’s head with gin, hoping it would bring cooling relief. Everyone cackled at his plight.

Finally, twenty-five days after they set out from San Francisco, Philip steered the Coronet home to Pasadena.

“The trip is one of the most happy and valuable memories of my life,” he wrote to Schaffner from Pasadena. “I garnered a great deal of material, had a most nostalgic time in parts of the west most familiar to me and saw much I had never seen before. It was splendid, gastronomically speaking, to be able to see that there is hope in American cooking.”

The best and most interesting food in America was inseparable from the landscapes that produced it. It was all right there, in country diners and small-town grocers’ shops; in roadside dinner houses and bakeries. All you needed to do was look.

From The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard by John Birdsall. Copyright © 2020 by John Birdsall. Used by permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


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