Virginia Woolf once said, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” For famous people—who always appear to think, love, sleep, and definitely eat better than the rest of us—this maxim seems all the more true.
The strange eating habits of well-known individuals are at the heart of the addictive new book What the Great Ate: A Curious History of Food and Fame. Authors Matthew Jacob and Mark Jacob saw a huge gap in food literature: There were few books that adequately chronicled famous people and their infamous appetites. And so the brothers began to speed-read hundreds of biographies and books, compiling the anecdotes into a smorgasbord of trivia. Like a multi-course meal, this book is best savored slowly and deliberately.
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One tidbit involves Vladimir Nabokov, who should have taken Woolf’s advice to dine well. The author once tried snacking on butterflies, which he said tasted “vile,” like a combination of “almonds and perhaps green cheese.” Another fun one: While Saddam Hussein was in captivity, he enjoyed Kellogg’s Raisin Bran Crunch and dismissed his other option: “No Froot Loops!” (Presumably he was worried the rainbow-colored crumbs would look silly in his beard.)
Sometimes food is a catalyst for fame. Greek opera star Maria Callas went from pudgy to va-va-voom after dropping weight because of a tapeworm—which some say she ate on purpose. She deserves some kudos—at least it was a cheap and organic alternative to liposuction.
Author Mark Jacob, a deputy metro editor at the Chicago Tribune, told The Daily Beast that he and Matthew, a columnist and food blogger, also got their hands dirty debunking food myths that have persisted for decades. Marie Antoinette, for example, did not invent the saying “Let them eat cake,” which she is said to have uttered about starving French peasants. Jean-Jacques Rousseau actually wrote them 20 years earlier. And although one report said Elvis Presley consumed a whopping 65,000 calories a day—on par with the diet of an Asian elephant—a nutritionist told the authors the claim was impossible.
Elvis’ food habits did, however, change radically when he became famous. Presley compensated for the poverty of his youth by indulging in ridiculous amounts of junk food, once flying 800 miles to eat a sandwich made of an entire loaf of Italian bread, peanut butter, jelly, and a pound of bacon. What the Great Ate proves that a rise to greatness can bring wealth, lavish homes, and servants at your beck and call—and extreme culinary demands.
But as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. Gabriel Garcia Marquez returned to Paris as a successful author, eager to take on the city’s culinary delights. Instead, he found himself on an eternal diet. “Half my life I couldn’t eat what I wanted because I couldn’t afford to, the other half because I have to diet.”
People’s relationships with food are complex, and even those folks in possession of sharp minds aren’t immune to familiar games of denial and indulgence. Playwright Neil Simon would often treat himself to a bag of Fritos after finishing a difficult scene. And it’s not surprising that Adolf Hitler was obsessive about his nearly meatless diet and ate more like a machine than a man.
All these foodie facts also humanize people often seen as larger-than-life. After his inauguration, George Washington, who was a very poor dining companion, ate his lunch alone. Imagining the first president eating a solitary meal while staring down a four-year term is humbling. Anyone with an aversion to ketchup would be delighted to learn that Ronald Reagan went 70 years without eating a tomato. And would you develop a soft spot for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad if you knew his wife brown-bagged his lunch every day? (Probably not, but at least someone cares about his health.)
Once, while dining with his future wife, Paul Newman took his salad to the bathroom to wash off an inferior salad dressing. He then mixed up his own at the table—oil cut with a dash of water. Suddenly, a quirky date story becomes an insightful introduction to a man who turned an obsession into his Newman’s Own food line and generated over $290 million for charity.
As Newman proved, a spark of inspiration can turn up in any meal or beverage. Renowned artist Maya Lin fashioned a model of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial out of mashed potatoes at a Yale University cafeteria—and then promptly ate her creation. Marcel Proust once drank 16 cups of espresso, perhaps to invigorate his writing, or maybe because it pairs so nicely with madeleines. Artists aren’t immune to the drink, either: Edvard Munch had absinthe in Paris, then later created a painting he called The Absinthe Drinkers, but was renamed Une Confession.
Beyond inspiration, food can become a necessary distraction. While Nelson Mandela was in prison for 27 years, he poured his energy into a fruit and vegetable garden. One prisoner said Mandela was “fanatical” about his pet project, growing 2,000 chilies, nearly 1,000 tomatoes, and watermelons. Relationships with food can be extrapolated to reveal how humans relate to the world around them. It’s not hard to imagine Mandela as a nurturing gardener.
The anecdotes are not only shocking—they’re informative, proving that people in authority relate to food in all sorts of strange ways. As to whether writing the book inspired the authors to embark on their own culinary adventures, it seems Matthew and Mark Jacob have already outgrown their wildest tastes. As Mark recalled, when they were children, their family’s pet turtle went missing, until he noticed a reptilian leg hanging out of the mouth of his then-2-year-old brother. Thankfully, the pet was rescued, but Mark says, “Matt always resented the fact that I delayed the ability to taste his first turtle.”
Kara Cutruzzula is deputy features editor at The Daily Beast.