How James Beard’s queerness influenced American food culture
He is just as famous as Julia Child. He was one of the first cooks to have his own TV show. So, in that context, what would going out or being exposed, for that matter, have meant for his career? And how far has he gone to hide this when it is an open secret among the culinary world?
Yeah, phew. I mean, a lot of my research on the book was about understanding all kinds of coded language and coded behavior around homosexuality at a time when it was a really brutal environment for LGBTQ Americans. So privately, in his circle in Greenwich Village, James could be, you know, pretty open-minded. But in every other aspect of his life, he had to pretend to be someone who was so focused on his job that he didn’t have time for personal relationships. And of course, that was not true.
The West Village building that Beard lived in for years was on 10th Street, and it’s hard not to recognize it’s a short walk from the Stonewall Inn. And you write that Beard could probably hear everything during the uprising that happened there in June 1969. Could you briefly talk about his relationship with the gay rights movement?
Yes, it was a very complicated relationship. It would have been heartbreaking for James Beard to witness it. For more than 30 years in Greenwich Village, he and other men like him had built a comfortable existence where they could express their homosexuality in private within the confines of the neighborhood. And of course Beard was 66 when Stonewall arrived. And they were kids, you know, they were trans women, they were people of color that didn’t necessarily live in the neighborhood. It was extremely difficult for the men and women of the Beard generation. You know, later in the 1970s, as the gay civil rights movement progressed, it made little attempts to come out of the closet, to sort of express his homosexuality in a certain way, to telegraph it. And Beard found it all very exciting and at the same time made him extremely fearful.
So why is this the time to dig into these parts of your life?
Well, in many ways he learned to express his sexuality through food. You know, he learned to cook for a small circle, kind of, you know, what we would call a foster family in a way. And he urged Americans more generally to somehow embrace this way of eating and having fun and thinking about food as an expression of pleasure in those you may have invited around the table with you. These ideas have become very common in American cuisine. But when Beard first started working, these ideas were stimulating. So I thought it was definitely time to do some sort of archeology to find the clues to his sexuality and privacy that he had been trying to hide and really focus on those as a way to understand not only her life, but how her sexuality really influenced a larger American food movement.
This interview has been edited and condensed.