The last word: What the great ate

We can learn a lot about history, says a new book, by examining how each era’s icons chowed down

ELVIS PRESLEY TOOK eating to more absurd heights than anyone could possibly justify. He snacked constantly—on Hostess cupcakes, Eskimo Pies, Krispy Kreme doughnuts. When he ate a pie or cake, that didn’t mean just one piece. He often ate the whole thing. He once flew more than 800 miles to eat a sandwich made from an entire loaf of Italian bread that had been hollowed out and stuffed with peanut butter, grape jelly, and a pound of bacon.

To justify his gargantuan appetite, Presley used to say: “The input has to be as great as the output.”

Maybe that’s all the explanation we need. But what of other famous figures who have shaped history and culture? What did they eat, and how did their diets and appetites affect the marks they left on our world? The human diet is governed by an almost sacred code, so we can learn something about history’s leading figures by examining their relationships to food. After all, Adam and Eve were arguably history’s first celebrities, and the most famous thing about them was that they ate of the forbidden fruit. The stories below are meant to entertain, but they’re not mere trivia.

✦ Statues of the Supreme Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, often show him as a fleshy creature, which is odd considering how often he was on some kind of fast. The Buddha was said to have described his own scrawniness by saying that “because I ate so little, my gaunt ribs became like the crazy rafters of a tumbledown shed; because I ate so little, the pupils of my eyes appeared lying low and deep; because I ate so little, my scalp became shriveled and shrunk as a bitter white gourd.”

On the other hand, the Buddha ate his way to enlightenment: According to legend, a woman named Sujata took the milk from 1,000 cows and fed it to 500 cows, and then milked those cows and fed half that number, and so on. She used the milk from the final eight cows to prepare a sweetened dish of milk-rice, which was served to Gautama in a golden bowl. Gautama divided the meal into 49 rice balls and consumed them. He then tossed the golden bowl in a river, declaring, “If today I am to attain full enlightenment, may this golden bowl swim upstream.” And indeed it did.

The meal of 49 rice balls sustained Gautama for the next 49 days, a time when he ate nothing, sat under a bodhi tree, and became Buddha.

✦ One of the miracles of Jesus Christ, described in the Bible, is his multiplying of five loaves of bread and two fish so that they fed 5,000 people. The type of fish is not identified by the Bible, but scholars believe it probably was tilapia, which has been eaten in the Middle East for millennia but has become popular in the United States only in recent decades.

✦ The Chinese philosopher Confucius wrote about peaches around 500 B.C., more than a century before the fruit was documented in any other part of the world. According to legend, Confucius was dining with Duke Ai of Lu when the duke’s servants presented the philosopher with millet and a peach. Confucius ate the millet and then enjoyed the peach. The duke’s courtesans laughed and laughed at his breach of custom—eating the millet before the peach instead of afterward. How ridiculous.

✦ Thomas Jefferson may have been America’s original foodie. He introduced eggplant to the United States, he was planting and eating tomatoes at a time when many Americans feared they were poisonous, and he wrote the oldest surviving U.S. recipe for ice cream.

✦ Visitors invited to dinner with George Washington quickly learned that the nation’s first president was not good at small talk, and that his table manners could be downright annoying. “The president seemed to bear in his countenance a settled aspect of melancholy,” wrote Pennsylvania Sen. William Maclay, describing a dinner hosted by Washington. “No cheering ray of convivial sunshine broke through the cloudy gloom of settled seriousness. At every interval of eating or drinking, he played on the table with a knife or fork like a drumstick.” Author John Dos Passos put the matter more bluntly: “His dinners were excruciating.”

Washington blamed his dental problems on years of cracking walnut shells with his teeth.

✦ Abraham Lincoln’s eating habits were as unpretentious as his public image. A woman who knew the Lincolns in Illinois called Abe “a hearty eater” who told her he could “eat corn cakes as fast as two women could make them.”

The president’s bodyguard wrote that Lincoln was especially fond of bacon. Yet his favorite food was probably the apple, and lunch was often just an apple and a glass of milk. His law partner, William Herndon, found it strange that Lincoln would “begin eating at the blossom end. I never saw an apple thus disposed of by anyone else.”

✦ “If only I were master of my stomach once more!” declared German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, referring to his frequent indigestion. To address the problem, Nietzsche experimented with a wide variety of diets. He tried vegetarianism. He tried living on milk and eggs alone. He tried eating hardly anything at all. At one point, he put his faith in something called Liebig’s meat extract. The product, a thick liquid that could be mixed with water to produce a beef broth, was believed to be an appetite stimulant. Because it took about 34 pounds of South American beef to produce 1 pound of extract, many consumers thought it was particularly nourishing. But in fact it had few nutrients, if any.

✦ Thomas Edison once invited friends to a steak dinner, but instead served them cut-up pieces of leather that had been heated and bathed in gravy. After his guests tried in vain to carve their food, Edison admitted the prank and ordered the cook to bring in real steaks.

✦ Like Nietzsche, Franz Kafka had chronic digestive problems. His response was to adopt a lacto-vegetarian diet. Kafka drank large quantities of milk. He also embraced the teachings of Horace Fletcher, the American dietary evangelist who advised people to chew their food 100 times per minute.

Kafka’s dietary habits rendered him virtually skin and bones. In 1912, he called himself “the thinnest person I have ever known.”

✦ Raymond Chandler made his name writing short stories and novels that firmly established the crime genre. Yet he once considered writing a book titled Cookbook for Idiots. The topics he envisioned covering included “How to Make Coffee That Doesn’t Taste Like Colored Water” and “Really Good Mashed Potatoes Are as Rare as Virgins, but Any Fool Can Make Them If He Tries.”

✦ Soon after his father took his own life in 1928, Ernest Hemingway asked his mother to send him the suicide weapon. His mother shipped it—accompanied by a chocolate cake.

✦ For Jean-Paul Sartre, food was both sustenance and symbol. “It is not a matter of indifference whether we like oysters or clams, snails or shrimp, if only we know how to unravel the existential significance of these foods,” the French philosopher wrote. And indeed, Sartre’s diet said a lot about him. He found crabs and lobsters revolting because they reminded him of insects. He liked cakes and pastries because “the appearance, the putting together, and even the taste have been thought out by man and made on purpose.” He preferred canned fruits and vegetables to fresh produce, thinking that the processing made the food more of a man-made product, and therefore better. Fresh produce, he believed, was “too natural.”

✦ In December 1941, when Gen. Dwight Eisenhower heard the news that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, his reaction was to make a batch of vegetable soup—a cathartic ritual that, his son wrote, “allowed him to pull his thoughts together.”

✦ Pop artist Andy Warhol visited pastry shops daily, sometimes bringing home an entire birthday cake and eating it by himself. At sumptuous meals, he would abstain, explaining, “Oh, I only eat candy.” One time at an airport, his bag was searched at customs and found to be full of candy, chewing gum, and cookies. He wrote: “I’ll buy a huge piece of meat, cook it up for dinner, and then right before it’s done I’ll break down and have what I wanted for dinner in the first place—bread and jam. I’m only kidding myself when I go through the motions of cooking protein: All I ever really want is sugar.”

✦ The menu for Truman Capote’s legendary 1966 Black and White costume ball wasn’t nearly as chic as the masks and outfits were. The midnight buffet featured chicken hash, spaghetti Bolognese, scrambled eggs, sausages, pastries, and coffee. But this was no ordinary chicken hash: It was the Plaza Hotel’s own recipe, which Capote fancied. It was prepared with hollandaise sauce, sherry, and heavy cream, and it dished out more than 600 calories per serving.

✦ Novelist Vladimir Nabokov had passions for writing and for butterflies. But his interest in butterflies went beyond collecting them. The author of Lolita confided to a Sports Illustrated reporter that he had once eaten butterflies in Vermont. “I didn’t see any difference between the monarch butterfly and the viceroy,” he said. “The taste of both was vile … They tasted like almonds and perhaps a green cheese combination.”

✦ Ronald Reagan reportedly went 70 years without eating a tomato. According to a chef at the White House, Reagan’s disdain for tomatoes sprang from a moment in childhood. As a prank, someone offered Reagan what he thought was an apple. He bit into it and realized he had been deceived. Reagan’s best-known indulgence was jelly beans. He started eating them soon after he became the governor of California, in 1967, supposedly to help him break a pipe-smoking habit. His favorite jelly bean flavor was licorice.

✦ The favorite food of 1990s grunge rocker Kurt Cobain was macaroni and cheese. And not just any macaroni and cheese—Kraft macaroni and cheese.

✦ Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs is a vegetarian who named the firm for his favorite fruit. After high school, he worked in an apple orchard. And when he dropped out after one semester of college, he experimented with an all-apple diet, believing it might eliminate the need for him to bathe. It didn’t.

Adapted from the book What the Great Ate ©2010 by Matthew Jacob and Mark Jacob. Published by Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House Inc.


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