Welcome to the VERANDA Sip & Read Book Club! Each month, we dive in to a book and offer exclusive conversations with the authors behind each tale over on Instagram, along with a perfectly matched cocktail. This month's pick is John Birdsall's The Man Who Ate Too Much, the re-examination of the life and times of gastronome James Beard. Get caught up on our past book club selections here.
There are books I speed through, gobbling them down in a night, two at the most, unable to stop myself from inhaling another world, another time, another journey. And there are books like Veranda’s November Sip & Read Book Club selection, The Man Who Ate Too Much, which I savored more slowly, jotting notes, flagging passages, all the while carrying author John Birdsall’s words with me throughout the days, contemplating the voluminous tome and the figure at the heart of it: the great American chef and author James Beard.
And Birdsall’s examination of Beard is worth savoring. The years unfold in morsels both weighty and light, the result of which is a book that’s a luscious meal unto itself: 368 pages accompanied by another 60 of notes and sources.
Birdsall is impeccably thorough with his research and has a delightful way with description, crafting sentences with turns of phrase that enhance the wordplay without being cumbersome. The Man Who Ate Too Much makes the reader yearn to be seated at the table, to “gorge on extravagantly musky late-summer strawberries so ripe, and with so much intrinsic sweetness, that all they needed to reach transcendence was a dribble of Guernsey cream.” Or at a dinner party when waiters serve a 1919 Château Haut-Brion with a taste that “seemed to reverse time.”
Equal care is given to the figures who come and go from Beard’s life. His mother was a “barricade of fabric and flesh," his father a man of “invisible currents.” Beard's childhood home was a place where “loneliness hovered in the high ceilings.” The portrait painted is one of saturated detail in some parts of Beard’s life and a veiled mystery peeking from behind the curtains in others, a purposeful sleight of hand by a talented writer that reflects the very dance Beard himself choreographed, masking his gayness in a world where it was not safe to be both fully oneself and a respectable figure in society. It’s a lesson taught to Beard, consciously or unconsciously, by his mother during his childhood, “how to ascribe to food all the thoughts and feelings too dangerous for one to avow openly.”
Birdsall presents Beard with all of his predilections, flattering or not, including his habit for “borrowing” recipes without attribution. The greatest sadness is that the larger-than-life man who preached to his audience that they should embrace food for pleasure, food for living in its truest sense, could never exist in true freedom himself. "Would he still be lovable," Birdsall imagines Beard wondering, "if everyone glimpsed the truth of who he was?"
Birdsall's biography allows readers to ponder an answer. Born from an idea that began with an essay in now-shuttered Lucky Peach magazine, he respectfully builds upon the previous two Beard biographies (1990's Epicurean Delight and 1994's James Beard: A Biography) to examine the James Beard we had yet to know, situating the godfather of New American cuisine within an examination of his life en masse—including his sexuality. The result is a kind of literary hedonism of which one has to imagine Beard himself would have approved.
VERANDA SIP & READ BOOK CLUB FOR NOVEMBER 2020
Selection: The Man Who Ate Too Much by John Birdsall (available via local booksellers, Amazon, or Bookshop)
Start reading with us this November 1.
Send John your questions! November 22 and 23 via VERANDA's Instagram Stories.
Tune in as John answers your questions and chats with us about The Man Who Ate Too Much on November 30 at 6 p.m. EST.
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