A Portland icon and probably the number one figure in American food culture, James Beard (1903-1995) briefly attended Reed College in Portland, although he was expelled for being gay in 1922. Reed granted Beard an honorary degree in 1976. In 1923 he joined studied voice and theater abroad until 1927, when he returned to the United States.
Beard didn’t invent American cuisine, but in many ways, he defined it for generations to come. Gay chef Craig Claiborne (1920-2000) declared Beard a “missionary in the gospel of bringing good cooking to the home table.” Julia Child said, “In the beginning, there was Beard“, a quote repeated by food critics to the point of cliché.
Beard’s influence is far-reaching: He pioneered food television with the first-ever network cooking series in 1946; he published two dozen books and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles on cooking; his work inspired home cooks to no longer see food as mere sustenance but as a delightful, delicious entertainment.
He is the namesake for the annual James Beard Awards, which is sort of the Academy Award of Food. The awards ceremony is Monday night in Chicago. And though his impact was as immense as his 6’4″, 300 pound frame, another enormous part of Beard’s life hardly factors into his legacy: his queerness.
Beard came out as gay in his memoir, Delights And Prejudices (1981), yet given his legendary status, it’s surprising how his gayness is little more than a footnote to his career.
When he died of congestive heart failure in 1985, the obituaries made only winking references to his sexuality. Major biographies published in the 1990s: James Beard: A Biography And Epicurean Delight: The Life by Robert Clark and Times Of James Beard by Evan Jones, both straight men, treat it as an inconsequential detail. Even the current bio page on the website of the James Beard Foundation fails to mention his 30-year relationship with Gino Cofacci, a pastry chef and author of two cookbooks.
Beard was so monumental that it’s entirely possible to consider his career without mentioning his personal life. But can you easily remove Beard’s queerness from his culinary sensibilities, which so brazenly stood in contrast to American norms at the time?
It was the sexuality of three gay culinary masters: Beard, Claiborne, and Richard Olney (1927-1999). that played the major role in both the aesthetics of their cooking and, with their outsized influence on American food. They were part of a cultural shift in America that really embraced pleasure for its own sake.
The erasure of Beard’s queerness is just another course in the straight male-dominated culture in professional kitchens. Despite the increasingly visible presence of queer culinary celebrities, the back-of-the-house can still prove hostile to LGBTQ people and straight women. There is no quick-and-easy recipe for queer liberation, it’s hard, hot work.