biography / food / food writing / history

The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard by John Birdsall

I started The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard by John Birdsall as an ARC and couldn’t get through it then tried again when it was published. This time I was able to put my finger on what bothered me.

I understand the impulse to make the subject of a biography seem fresh and real but the author goes too far in imagining what the Beard was literally thinking and experiencing. Who knows if he observed “actresses lacing their tea with brandy” and if men winked at him and gave him candy? Or if didn’t like the scent of his father’s hair oil. Or if he caught the eye of a man along the train tracks and thought he looked like the family cook. It all reads as outright fantasy. There is a way to write biographies and factual information that doesn’t require so much fabrication. So much James felt this, James ate this, James saw this—you just don’t know. There were no home movies of the time, he doesn’t seem to have kept a minute to minute diary. It reads like fan fiction.

I did appreciate the shedding of light into Beard’s “borrowing” of other people’s recipes. As a recipe developer myself, it is galling to come across recipes I created in other people’s cookbooks and websites unchanged.

Birdsall isn’t a bad writer but I think he would be been better off writing a novelization of Beard’s life rather than what is being sold as a biography. I’m puzzled why he didn’t, he clearly enjoyed fantasizing and making up details about Beard’s thoughts and day to day life and a whole book of that without the expectation it was to be a wholly factual work would be have been much more palatable. Instead I was left wondering what else was made up when he talked about Beard’s life. Did he keep his flourishes just to Beard’s thoughts? Or were other things made up or exaggerated for dramatic effect? We don’t know because as he points out in the foreword, little has been written about Beard the man and even people close to him seem to have vastly different perceptions of him.

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