Late in the post-production stage of “America’s First Foodie,” director Beth Federici, editor Greg Snider and I turned to a scene we called, unironically, “Jim Is Gay.” It’s not the first scene in which James Beard’s sexuality is discussed, but it focuses on it most explicitly. Is the music—a deliberately sleazy stab at 70s jazz fusion / softcore porn—right for the scene? I’ll let you be the judge, but I love this section ofthe film, not only for its clear-eyed look at homosexuality in the 60s and 70s, but the sexual life of a man who did not fit the stereotypes— straight or gay—of attractiveness.
Beard—the pioneering cook, author and all-around food celebrity—was important in so many ways, but it’s conceivable that, 32 years after his death, the man widely regarded as “the father of American cooking” has at last found his true calling, as an unabashed and unashamed advocate for gay rights and inclusion.
Frank Bruni brought this to light in a recent op-ed entitled “Food, Sex and Silence” (which in fact refers to “America’s First Foodie”). Even today, many references to Beard point out such “helpful” information as the fact that he was bald and rather portly, both of which are obviated by the briefest glance at any image of the man. What might actually be informative would be a reference to his sexuality.
As noted in “America’s First Foodie,” Beard “made it okay for men to cook,” no small feat in and of itself. But even today, references to this titan of American food overlook the fact that he was, in fact, rather uncomplicatedly gay.
Is this even worthy of mention? Supposedly, we’re in a post-identity moment, where normative sexual and gender roles are no longer critical identifying traits. The jury’s most emphatically out on this count, but what isn’t debatable is how different Beard’s era was from ours in this regard. There was no being “out,” not in the sense we take for granted today. In the relative safety of large cities, gays and lesbians enjoyed a tenuous liberty within those social groups willing to keep their open secrets. But being out in the sense of publicly identifying as homosexual? Not a chance, unless, as in the case of ‘20s silent film star Billy Haines, one refused to bow to the pressure—professional, societal and legal—to renounce his or true identity, and was outed. Needless to say, “being outed” is not the same as “coming out.”
Of course, James Beard didn’t choose his sexual identity, and in general, I’m wary of assigning too much import to any one such identifying characteristic. But what made Beard noteworthy was his insistence that it did not matter, at a time when—as far as the rest of the world was concerned—it mattered a great deal. So far as we know, he felt no less (or more) worthy on account of his innate sexuality than any other person in his place would be.
Beard was a fascinating man, and in other areas of his life, quite complicated. You can learn a great deal more about the man by checking out “America’s First Foodie,” which airs on PBS on May 19, 2017.