They say that you can tell a lot about a person by the clothes they wear, the company they keep and, these days, from their Instagram accounts. But it might also be said that you can tell a lot about someone based on how they eat, and what.
We look to great historical figures for advice on how to live well. We might be inspired to follow James Joyce’s reading list, to see Samuel Beckett’s favorite plays, to watch Martin Scorsese’s favorite films. But we don’t often discuss drawing inspiration from, and also analyzing, the favorite foods of historical figures.
Does it tell us anything to learn that Lord Byron shunned fancy food at dinners, and preferred the staples of the navy—hard biscuits and soda water—and, when this was unavailable in the kitchen of the restaurant to which he had been invited, he opted instead for mashed potatoes, which he further mashed into a thin puree, doused in vinegar? A psychoanalytic investigation would surely bear fruit. But instead, I prefer to find motivation in the favorite foods of famous folk.
For if we feel we can learn something by emulating them, and this is certainly the case in the category of cultural consumption, then surely we can learn something as well from their culinary delights? So what did Darwin eat and Balzac drink? A few are famous, like Marcel Proust’s madeleines dipped in tea, but some may be surprising…and hopefully inspiring.
Emperor Augustus and Julius Caesar
The great emperors of ancient Rome were huge fans of asparagus. Augustus preferred his al dente, and was so in tune with the vegetable that he was frequently noted to use the phrase “faster than you can cook asparagus.” Julius Caesar took his covered in melted butter. Truly a vegetable fit for an emperor.
The theoretician of evolution was a member of the Glutton Club during his student days and would gather with friends to enjoy meals of the weirdest meats possible. He recalled having eaten hawk and alligator, but his favorite of all was…armadillo. He described it as “tasting like duck” only better.
The British love the comfort food of savory pies, and director Alfred Hitchcock was no exception, especially baked ham and onion pie.
One of the great cartoonists of the mid-20th century, Steinberg is the godfather of New Yorker cartoons and similar illustrations for adult humor and wit. He liked to eat breakfast three times a day, considering it the only good meal in America: waffles, pancakes, home fries, bacon, eggs, ham. Hard to argue.
The last king of France inherited Napoleon’s steward, the Marquis de Cussy, and was initially unimpressed and did not want to be involved with someone who had once faithfully served Napoleon. But then de Cussy prepared him what would become his favorite dessert, and things changed: Fraises a la Cussy, in which fresh strawberries are mixed with sugar, heavy cream and semi-dry champagne.
Perhaps the greatest of all American presidents, it’s well-known that Jefferson loved good wine (particularly Chateau Lafite), but he was also an avid fruit-o-phile, once writing that the Carnation cherry was “so superior to all others than no other deserves the name of cherry” adding that it was “the richest gift of Heaven.”
The American author loved to prepare a simple dish for his children, from their youth into adulthood, which was always a hit. Giant meatballs, the size of a golf ball at least, comprised of two eggs mixed into a pound of hamburger, browned and then with garlic, onion and basil added.
Honore de Balzac
The French man-of-letters was the original gourmand, once (supposedly) feasting on one-hundred oysters, a dozen cutlets, two whole partridges, a duck and a sole fish. But that was for dinner. He would write from midnight until noon the next day, only consuming black coffee, eggs and fruit. But he also owned a sweet shop, a little-known fact, and was crazy about marzipan.
When he wasn’t writing The Three Musketeers, Dumas could be found at one of many lavish Parisian restaurants—he even had his own, private room in one. His favorite dish, though, was one he enjoyed mixing on his own while eating out, especially if he had company whom he could impress. It was a dressing for a salad with the following recipe: the crushed yolks of eggs hardboiled in olive oil (one for every two people to be fed), diced gherkins, smashed anchovies, chopped hardboiled egg whites, chervil and thyme, salt and pepper, and vinegar to finish. To this would be added greens, and then a pinch of paprika to finish.
Alexandre Dumas Jr.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and the illegitimate son of the famous writer also became known around Paris for his favorite food, also an elaborate, meaty salad. It was called Salade Francillion (though it sounds more like a main) and featured red potatoes softened in beef bouillon, chopped celery, butter and Chablis…and a pound of live mussels. Once cooked, this would be chilled and served cold.
Francois Rene de Chateaubriand
Napoleonic author Chateaubriand is one of the few famous figures who is now more famous for his favorite food, which bears his name, than for his prose. A chef at the French embassy in London created a steak dish consisting of sirloin covered in butter and pepper, then broiled, sliced, topped with more butter and parsley and with bearnaise sauce for dipping.
Turtle soup was a thing in pre-war Britain. Churchill was a soup fan (but no creamy soups, only with a clear broth), and he wasn’t bothered if he couldn’t find turtle soup. But apparently one taste is enough to make anyone a convert. Aside from other turtles.
Catherine de' Medici
The Italian princess who brought the Renaissance to France, when she married Henri II, helping to transform medieval (and by all accounts rather barbaric, when it came to culture) France into the enlightened, sophisticated place that we consider it today, she introduced the fork and the plate (French aristocrats ate on pieces of bread, using their hands and a knife), and loved to eat fowl (stork, swan, heron, crow) and artichokes (considered an aphrodisiac).
No one is as American as the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, and so his favorite dish, which he ate for breakfast anytime he could, was as American as apple pie: apples, bacon and coffee. Come to think of it, too bad he didn’t include apple pie.
Chicken Marengo, Napoleon’s favorite entree, was named after the Battle of Marengo (1800), which Napoleon very nearly lost. The story goes that Napoleon couldn’t be bothered with tactics that day, and when asked what the next move would be, Napoleon told one of his generals, Desaix, to do whatever he liked, but Napoleon was going to have dinner. Desaix led a charge that won the battle, though he was killed that day. Meanwhile, Napoleon’s steward prepared what would become a favorite, using whatever ingredients he could find while on the edge of a battlefield. The result was a chicken dish sautéed with onions in olive oil (as the preferred butter was not to be found), dry white wine, black olive, plum tomatoes, mushrooms and Madeira.
Ludwig von Beethoven
Home cooking is part of everyone’s heart, and there is no need for fanciness, no matter how sophisticated the individual. One of history’s greatest composers was at his happiest when eating one of the simplest of dishes: mac and cheese.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The composer was not only a brilliant musician, but he knew how to party. He would write about his prowess at the billiard table and his favorite dish, a plate of sauerkraut topped with liver dumplings.