As if you didn’t know it already, Tucson is a magnet for talented and artistic souls. Whether they are born here or move here later in life, we are surrounded by a level of creative spirits that rival our own natural beauty. And like our geography, getting to know many of these residents is as surprising and revelatory as the hikes we take regularly through our canyon and foothills trails, stimulating our senses as we wander through the elegant saguaros and fragrant mesquite.
This month, we’re featuring writer John Birdsall whose first solo book, The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard, was published in 2021, shortly before his relocation from the Bay Area to Tucson. It has been called, “elegant and unvarnished…beautifully unconventional” (Helen Rosner, The New Yorker) and achieved the lauded status as one of the Top 100 Best Books of the Year on Amazon. He’s written for some of the most respected food and wine publications worldwide, as well as the nation’s top dailies, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and The Los Angeles Times.
Having honed your craft as a chef in such foodie haunts as San Francisco and Chicago, what was the defining moment when you decided that you wanted to turn in your toque for a writer's pen? Did you find the segue difficult, knowing that you might have to critique the cuisine of former colleagues and mentors?
I always knew I wanted to write about food. I took my first kitchen job, which was an apprenticeship at Greens in San Francisco, thinking it would be a one-year gig. It didn’t exactly work that way. The kitchen—the dysfunctional family of the restaurant staff—kind of sucked me in. After four or five years, I started to write, on my days off. I never wanted to write reviews—I never really saw myself as a critic, though, I did end up doing food reviews once I left the kitchen for good in 2002, deciding to write full-time. As a critic, I always tried to tell stories instead of answering whether or not the fettuccine was good. I never saw myself as any sort of grand tastemaker, passing judgment. I just wanted to tell good stories with food at the center.
Of course, we are honored to have you here in Tucson, but could you share how that big move came about? And what has been your biggest revelation concerning our restaurant scene locally?
We were both ready to leave (the Bay Area) and had been looking around for a couple of years. We played out various wildly different relocation scenarios, and, in the end, it came down partly to weather. He convinced me to love sun and heat, but also whatever place we visited that felt right. We were looking around Phoenix, not really feeling it, and drove south to Tucson. Some of the older neighborhoods felt like parts of North Oakland and Berkeley that we knew and loved. It was only later, after we’d already moved, that our real estate agent showed us the Foothills, and we fell deeply in love.
It’s hard to think of a restaurant scene more different from the Bay Area’s than Tucson’s. There’s an intense level of competition in the restaurant space in Oakland and San Francisco. Tucson, of course, has an old, insular restaurant culture. It relies on regulars, there’s not so much clamoring for attention. The Sonoran food-- from taco trucks, street food, and the cooking at small, indie, family-run places-- is quite special here, and definitely something to try to preserve. Overall it’s been the humble, open, welcoming spirit in restaurants here that’s captured my heart.
Finally, you're at your home here in Tucson. It's 11 a.m. on a Friday morning and you've made no plans for dinner. What's a meal you might decide to make at home that evening for you and Perry that always seems to be a hit?
One of my favorite features of our 1968 ranch house is the built-in grill, fitted with a hand-crank grate for the coals. In line with Sonoran tradition, I love burning mesquite charcoal, and grilling something from Forbes Meat Company downtown—they sell half-chickens marinated in a Mexican-style mixture of citrus and Achiote. That on the grill, with small flour tortillas from La Mesa, simple roasted cauliflower, a romaine salad with lime and avocado, and martinis is my idea of a perfect weekend night.
His latest book, The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard, is currently available on Amazon, or other book retailers online, or near you.