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The Evolution of the Onion Sandwich

Long before James Beard was famous for championing American foods and mentoring a generation of chefs, long before he was an immediately recognizable celebrity, he was sick and tired of not being famous. Sick and tired of working in kitchens, unseen and uncelebrated, stalling out while the people around him came up. In 1940, working in obscurity as a caterer, he lifted a recipe from his colleagues Irma Rhode and her brother Bill Rhode — known as New York’s king of hors d’oeuvres — and published it as his own. It was a cute cocktail sandwich of soft, buttery bread and finely sliced onion called brioche en surprise, a hit at the events he and the Rhodes had worked together. But as Beard became more famous, the sandwich got a new, unofficial name: James Beard’s onion sandwich. Beard earned (along with a reputation for chronic, unapologetic plagiarism) his own nickname, the Dean of American Cookery. It was a good nickname, a strong nickname, though in suggesting a kind of elite prep school tucked away from the real world, it also gave away some truths about the small circle of people defining American food: They were insular, petty and competitive. And if Beard was their dean — a champion of American regional ingredients and the cooks who supported them — he was also a fragile and sometimes predatory influencer, an outsider aching for companionship and financial success.

John Birdsall is not a polite biographer, and I say this with admiration. In his new book, “The Man Who Ate Too Much,” he pokes and prods at Beard’s most tender places, his hidden traumas, his deepest insecurities. Birdsall gets to what’s often missing from the cheerful narrative of James Beard, shading in the face sketched on medals and vintage book covers — a man known chiefly as a gregarious entertainer, enormous in profile, appetite and knowledge. There was so much more to Beard — a gay, closeted man from Portland who struggled with anxiety and depression all his life, a failed opera singer mocked for his hulking, 300-pound body, a cook who chased pure, over-the-top pleasures in kitchens around the world and, early in his career, wrote about them using language that Birdsall calls “unabashedly queer.”

In a 2013 essay for Lucky Peach, Birdsall wrote about his own experience as a queer cook in homophobic restaurant kitchens. He pointed to three gay men — James Beard, Richard Olney and Craig Claiborne — as the architects of modern American cuisine. Though Beard was out to only a small circle of friends, Birdsall interviewed his peers, combed through documents and picked up every clue that Beard left behind in his writing about his life. As a biographer, Birdsall applies his deep research to give us critical readings of Beard’s culinary style, documenting its zigzagging development through travel and apprenticeship, looking into dishes that shaped him and crucial meals he cooked, finding intellectual and sensual meaning in the relics of Beard’s delights. In New York, Beard first wooed his longtime lover by making him a poached, deboned calf’s head, starting with the meat and tongue of the tête de veau, saving the brains for a second course, and skipping dessert for cheese. Birdsall’s writing is so precise and illuminating, I read this passage believing I could know Beard through his cooking, that if he made a tête de veau for his crush, with a soft, herbaceous dressing — an absurdly over-the-top dish — I could see him and understand him more clearly than ever before, vulnerable and yearning, eager to please, obscuring himself with a rich country lunch.

There was more to the famous onion sandwich, too, which served as a kind of blueprint for Beard’s approach to American cuisine. “It’s a recipe where charm and originality come from taking a traditional dish and swapping out its signifiers with ones that seem new,” Birdsall writes. And if Beard didn’t invent it, then he understood that power. The sandwich started as a bundle of flavors — a Central European-style bite of raw onion on schmaltz-licked dark bread. But it became two slices of rich brioche, cut into circles and spread with mayonnaise, with thinly shaved onion firmly pressed inside and a rim of chopped parsley. It was basic but confident, and it came together with inexpensive ingredients. It was so good that you could easily eat a dozen, and so simple that it barely required a recipe. You glance at the directions, feeling a little silly rolling the sandwiches in chopped parsley, a crucial step that makes the sandwich, and that Irma Rhode said came from Beard. You’d make it once, and then the dish would be committed to memory — as James Beard’s onion sandwich.

Recipe: Onion Sandwich

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