Wednesday, 13 January 2021

A Beard, a blowjob and a bon vivant

I must confess I had never heard of James Beard - apparently America's first "celebrity chef" and gourmand, whose recipe books expounded the virtues of fresh local produce and preparing tasty meals in a post-War era when the country's predominant preoccupation was with "convenience foods", tinned, packaged or frozen and above all, processed - nor his legacy (he ran a cookery school and a prize for culinary excellence is held annually in his name). Then again I had never heard of his protégé the US TV sensation Julia Child until the film Julie and Julia came out; we in the UK had our own set of culinary icons, from Elizabeth David to Fanny Cradock to Zena Skinner, so neither made any impact over here.

On a typical Google search for something else entirely, however, today I stumbled across a comprehensive biography The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard by fellow chef and cookery writer John Birdsall, which examines in detail his extraordinary life as an out-gay man having to hide the fact from public view in a puritanical era in American social history, whose breezy tone and popular cook-books belied the fact that quite often he lifted without credit other people's recipes and peppered his prose with outrageously made-up "anecdotes" and "histories" about these. Thrown out of his first college when he was caught giving a blowjob to one of the professors, he decided to embark upon a life in the theatre before reverting to his first love: food.

It is at this stage of the story - with young Mr Beard in 1920s London in pursuit of his theatrical ambitions, where he is taken under the wing of the flamboyant Helen Dircks, poet, socialite, theatre promoter and obvious "fag-hag" - that the following passage really caught my eye...

In James's eyes, Soho was nothing short of magical. Helen took him to lunch at Gennaro's Rendezvous on Dean Street. It was there, in the faux-Olde English farmhouse dining room, with its black ceiling beams, banks of small-paned cottage windows, and high-backed rush-weave chairs, that Helen ordered James his first London dry Martini (three parts gin, one of vermouth). They ate Sole Rendezvous (in white wine sauce) and soufflé Gallina (named for the restaurant's previous owner), with brandied cherries and an amber puddle of Cognac, flambéed at the table with high theatrics. James was enraptured. James was drunk.

Through her gay friends, Helen gave James an entrée into London's discreet queer subculture, something he hungered for without even daring to hope that such a thing could exist, or what it would feel like, what its rules and language were. Queers in the other great European capitals flaunted their existence. There were drag balls and openly gay beer bars in Berlin and male hustling on radical display in the Left Bank cafés of Paris. London was different. Police raids were constant. The queer city blossomed at night, in the dark. London's gay scene operated more like a network of speakeasies. One had to be tipped off about where to find the alley tea shop of boys in berets and coloured sweaters, some wearing rouge and lipstick; or the basement bar of quiet yet purposeful men in crisp suits and bowler hats with tightly rolled umbrellas. The hunt for these places alone was thrilling.

The hotspots were usually takeovers of existing places: the monumental marble bar at the Trocadero; the basement bar at the Criterion Hotel in Piccadilly Circus. Queer men had been stopping in for drinks at the Criterion, amid the neo-Byzantine splendour of its mosaics and arches, almost since the death of Queen Victoria more than two decades earlier. (It had camp nicknames: the Witches' Cauldron for its bitchiness; or the Bargain Basement, since the men could be had so cheaply). Another place, though James didn't know it the night he met Helen and friends there, was the downstairs bar at the Ritz. Gay regulars called it l'Abri, the Vault, a place locked away from the dangers of the nonqueer world. Subterranean bars were London's queer cocoons, incubator sites for pleasure and discovery, as remote as possible from the cruel and risky street. James found recognition and safety there. He learned the culture of cocktails, and of camp.

Even the galleries off the Rococo lobby of the Palladium, Helen's client, were laces where men found each other; where they could lock gazes and discreetly grope beneath raincoats folded over arms, especially during the blare and pyrotechnics at the climax of the popular Rockets revue, when the audience's eyes would be focused on the stage. The body language in these establishments, the queer code, was subtle but undeniable. Even on the streets of the West End, a daring man might telegraph his queerness by walking with his overcoat slung behind one shoulder. One simply had to know how to read the signals.

An utterly fascinating insight into a lost world...

The PBS channel in America produced a comprehensive documentary James Beard: America's First Foodie in 2017, which may prove illuminating, if only we could get it here. I'm just going to have to read the book!

10 comments:

  1. That was fascinating, so much about History remains uncovered and undiscovered. About the challenges within Society of various Communities that had to fear persecution. Thank you for the History Lesson.

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    1. You're welcome, my dear - every discovery from history is valuable, and this was one I found most enlightening indeed! Jx

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  2. With lockdown I’d settle for a grope beneath my rain coat

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    1. ...in the Rococo lobby of the London Palladium, of course. Jx

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  3. we have an award named for james beard here. some of our famous philly chefs have won this award. but I didn't know all THIS about him! now I wanna read the book!

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    1. 'Tis strange, isn't it? We are more familiar with a name associated with an award, a building, a scholarship, or so on, than we are with the life of the person behind it... Jx

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  4. My mother had one of his cookbooks. He was a household name on this side of The Pond.

    The book sounds fascinating.

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    1. I wonder if she knew about his blowjob-strewn past? Jx

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  5. Even up to the present day, laissez-faire is not all that laisser!

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    1. Somewhat more so than the 1920s (outside of "high society", of course), I reckon.

      If we ever get out of the other side of this "lockdown world", I'd like to imagine that such places as "the Witches' Cauldron" and "the Bargain Basement" could still exist, in one form or another.

      Jx

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