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Speaker Series: John Birdsall featuring Chef Mike Lata

November 19, 2020 @ 6:00 pm - 7:00 pm


The Charleston Library Society welcomes author John Birdsall to discuss his most recent book, The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James BeardDubbed the Dean of American Cookery, James Beard (1903-1985) was widely credited in the second half of the twentieth century as the founder of a national cuisine. Before it was published in 1972, one of his greatest books, James Beard’s American Cookery, had the working title Everything James Beard Knows About Cooking.

For a couple of generations following World War II, Beard was American food—his prodigious frame and charming, charismatic manner seemed to embody the cuisine of a large and diverse nation. But what exactly was James Beard’s American cooking? What are its roots? The traditions that nurture it? Whose cooking does it celebrate and whose does it ignore—even erase? How does the South figure in Beard’s reckoning of the nation’s food? In this talk, John Birdsall will describe the history of American cooking in the twentieth century, and the ways James Beard—notorious for bending the truth, who’d become famous in part for his skill at inventing myths about himself—invented American food.

Towards the end of the program, Birdsall will be joined by Charleston’s own Beard-award winning chef Mike Lata to conduct a Q&A session. This event is free, but an RSVP is required. After submitting your RSVP, you will receive your Zoom invitation email on the day of the event.

To purchase a copy of Birdsall’s The Man Who Ate Too Much click here: https://buxton-books.square.site/product/the-man-who-ate-too-much-the-life-of-james-beard/3202?cs=true

The definitive biography of America’s best-known and least-understood food personality, and the modern culinary landscape he shaped.
In the first portrait of James Beard in twenty-five years, John Birdsall accomplishes what no prior telling of Beard’s life and work has done: He looks beyond the public image of the “Dean of American Cookery” to give voice to the gourmet’s complex, queer life and, in the process, illuminates the history of American food in the twentieth century. At a time when stuffy French restaurants and soulless Continental cuisine prevailed, Beard invented something strange and new: the notion of an American cuisine.

Informed by previously overlooked correspondence, years of archival research, and a close reading of everything Beard wrote, this majestic biography traces the emergence of personality in American food while reckoning with the outwardly gregarious Beard’s own need for love and connection, arguing that Beard turned an unapologetic pursuit of pleasure into a new model for food authors and experts.

Born in Portland, Oregon, in 1903, Beard would journey from the pristine Pacific Coast to New York’s Greenwich Village by way of gay undergrounds in London and Paris of the 1920s. The failed actor–turned–Manhattan canapé hawker–turned–author and cooking teacher was the jovial bachelor uncle presiding over America’s kitchens for nearly four decades. In the 1940s he hosted one of the first television cooking shows, and by flouting the rules of publishing would end up crafting some of the most expressive cookbooks of the twentieth century, with recipes and stories that laid the groundwork for how we cook and eat today.

In stirring, novelistic detail, The Man Who Ate Too Much brings to life a towering figure, a man who still represents the best in eating and yet has never been fully understood—until now. This is biography of the highest order, a book about the rise of America’s food written by the celebrated writer who fills in Beard’s life with the color and meaning earlier generations were afraid to examine.

John Birdsall is a two-time James Beard Award–winning author, a former food critic, and longtime restaurant cook. He is the coauthor of a cookbook, Hawker Fare, with James Syhabout. He lives in Tucson.


November 19, 2020
6:00 pm - 7:00 pm