Over the course of several juicy chapters, Birdsall traces Beard’s ascent into the elite of New York’s food-obsessed ... The Man Who Ate Too Much unsparingly dismantles the mythology of the jolly asexual bachelor gastronome ... a nuanced and absorbing portrait of an imperfect man, one who reshaped the way several generations of Americans thought about cooking and turned the lens of culinary appreciation away from canned truffles, Swiss Gruyère, and other ingredients imported from Europe and toward Kentucky ham, California wines, and the bounty of local farm stands ... Beard’s legacy is complicated. Among the many merits of Birdsall’s biography is the extent to which it illuminates not just the importance of this foundational American chef, but also the enduring force of his prejudices and delights.
How lucky we are to have John Birdsall, a former professional cook and restaurant critic who writes broadly and deeply about food—which is to say, about culture, politics and what it means to be human. He shifts at ease between the glossy establishment (Food & Wine, Bon Appétit) and the more fractious iconoclasts (First We Feast, the now defunct Lucky Peach), all without ever losing sight of that simple pleasure ... Sometimes his gift is the single perfectly placed word...or a string of them, going off like a chain of fireworks ... Birdsall’s sentences have rhythm, too, and compress time and place so that a meal becomes a history ... He’s just as good with people ... This is not biography as lionization ... In this book, the more famous Beard becomes, the more he recedes. We lose him in the crowd. Birdsall has done extensive research—this is the writer’s dilemma, to have unearthed so much great material, you can’t bear to leave any of it on the cutting-room floor—and grants elaborate paragraphs to almost every person in Beard’s circle, colleagues and enemies alike, so many of them that I kept wishing for an old-fashioned dramatis personae to remind me who they were and why they mattered ... I couldn’t help wondering what might have happened had Birdsall felt freer here to bring in his personal story, beyond the confines of the prologue—to wrestle with Beard directly, to reimagine the possibilities of biography, and in doing so to tell a large story, not just of the past and how we got here but of all the ways we’re still failing ourselves now ... This is the worst thing a reviewer can do, to judge a book against the one not written. But like the greediest of diners, I want more.
The Man Who Ate Too Much is more than a story of one man’s existence; it is a portrait of 20th-century gay life and aesthetics ... Like the life of James Beard, this biography is big and beautiful, heartbreaking and true. It is the celebration that Beard deserves.