Book Talk: Mixing food and fame to cook up a book of trivia

Posted at 07/15/10 11:50 AM

SYDNEY - Most children know George H. W. Bush banned broccoli from the White House when he was US president but not many people realize Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the first people to enjoy banana fritters soaked in rum.

Broccoli--the vegetable former US President George W Bush hated. Credit: Fotosearch

Few people have probably bothered to calculate that opera singer Luciano Pavarotti lost and gained 5,000 pounds in his career or are aware that Elvis Presley never cut up his own food.

But for two journalist brothers, Matthew and Mark Jacob, food trifles of the famous became an obsession, leading to the newly released book, What the Great Ate: A Curious History of Food and Fame, published by Three Rivers Press.

The US-based Jacob brothers said they were fascinated by the fact that meals could change history with food blamed for the deaths of various kings, popes and other leaders.

Paying tribute to the importance of food, actress Sophia Loren once declared: "Everything you see I owe to spaghetti."

The brothers spent more than two years ploughing through piles of biographies and other books to pull together a collection of the culinary likes, dislikes, habits and attitudes of the famous through history.

Matthew and Mark Jacob spoke to Reuters about food and fame:

Q: Why food trivia?

A: Matthew: "As food obsessed as our culture is, you pick up the typical biography and find very little about the eating habits of a famous person. We knew they were there and wanted to dig."

Q: Do you each have a favorite story from the book?

A: Matthew: "I think one example would be Ernest Hemingway. He ate a lot of unusual foods in his life but his father once punished him when he was 13 and killed a porcupine by making him cook and eat the animal."

Mark: "One of my favorites is the one of astronaut John Young who in 1965 smuggled a corned beef sandwich into space in his spacesuit to give to his fellow astronaut Gus Grissom. All the technical people at mission control freaked out as they were concerned that some little piece could foul the equipment."

Q: How about the most bizarre story in your view?

A: Matthew: "Elvis Presley was home to a lot of them but I think one of the most amusing stories to me was one about the ultimate power of food. In 2008 Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej found himself in hot water for violating the constitution. How? By accepting payments of $2,350 for appearing on four episodes of a televised TV cooking show called "Tasting and Complaining"."

Mark: "I liked the story of Alexander the Great banning his soldiers from chewing on mint leaves in case they became sexually excited and unable to fight effectively."

Q: Did you find common threads between all these stories?

A: Mark: "Many of these stories tell us a lot about what kind of people they were. For example there is a story about Paul Newman, the actor, going on a date with Joanne Woodward and he took his salad into the bathroom to wash off the salad dressing and then came back and made his own. We all know what happened next!"

Matthew: "Famous people can be incredibly pedantic about food even though you'd think they'd have bigger fish to fry."

Q: What was the hardest part about writing the book?

A: Mark: "Cutting down the number of stories. We have about twice as many as are in the book. We just collected too many and it almost became a competition between the two of us. I couldn't believe that Matthew found the story of boxer Joe Louis in Chicago whose trainer made him drink blood straight from the slaughter house to build his toughness. Chicago is my city!"

Matthew: "Once the book was finished we kept coming across more great stories too, like comedian Tina Fey saying she fantasized about being locked in a room surrounded by McDonalds' french fries."

Q: Did you seek the advice of any food experts?

A: Mark: "We consulted a dietician because there were various estimates of how many calories Elvis Presley consumed and some were wildly exaggerated like him eating more calories than an Asian elephant every day."

Matthew: "I interviewed a retired baseball player who played alongside some of the greats in the sport to dig around and confirm a few things but there were some mysteries we could never get to the bottom of."