Writer Food From A To Z
by Jane Hu
For Frank O’Hara, L was definitely for Lunch. He wrote most of Lunch Poems during his lunch hours — pausing, as he put it, “for a liver sausage sandwich in the Mayflower Shoppe” and taking notes on what he’d seen while roaming Manhattan. Eating and writing, eating and writing. I adore the book’s title, not just for its banal literality, but for its figurative (ahem, poetic) potential as well: The volume of poems, small as a subway map, tucks easily into one’s pocket. Like a snack. And the poems, too, can be consumed that way. As O’Hara’s famous “A Step Away from Them” suggestively ends: “A glass of papaya juice / and back to work. My heart is in my / pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.”
Poems can be a form of sustenance. But a writer, no matter how high-minded, cannot live by poems alone. And as has been illustrated and explored elsewhere, particular snacks and foods often become intimately entwined with writers’ daily routines. What have been some of these favorites? And what were the make-dos when times were lean? (They don’t call them “starving artists” for nothing!) Let’s run through the alphabet and see.
A is for APPLES
Charles Dickens couldn’t get enough of baked apples — one of his favorite treats. He found beauty in their simplicity, and also believed the baked apple had other virtues as well. In an 1867 letter to his sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth, Dickens writes: “If ever you should be in a position to advise a traveler going on a sea voyage, remember that there is some mysterious service done to the bilious system when it is shaken, by baked apples.” Delicious and magical! F. Scott Fitzgerald also employed the basic apple in his survival strategies. While writing essays for Esquire in 1936, Fitzgerald stayed in a cheap North Carolina hotel where half of his diet was apples.
B is for BOOZE
Has anyone ever told you it’s easier to write after a drink or too? Alcohol can tip the paralyzingly self-aware into loquacity. There are your classic lushes: Hart Crane, Hunter S. Thompson, William Faulkner. Kingsley Amis’ famous “Boozing Man’s Diet,” included here, opens with the caveat: “”The first, indeed the only, requirement of a diet is that it should lose you weight without reducing your alcoholic intake by the smallest degree.”
But what about your more restrained drinkers? Robert Frost loved daiquiris. At the Waybury Inn near — one of his favorite dining spots — Frost would begin every dinner with a daiquiri. But only one daiquiri — never more. John Keats also wanted to get the most out of one drink: His fondness for claret caused him sometimes to place cayenne pepper on his tongue, to enhance the drink’s flavor.
C is for CHAMPAGNE
Oscar Wilde’s love for drink didn’t stop him from indulging in it. Wilde was wined and dined during his 1882 American tour, with servers instructed to bring him champagne “at intervals” throughout the day. As noted here, even in prison, Wilde ordered cases of his favorite bottle (an 1874 Perrier-Jouët) straight to his cell. Transcripts of Wilde’s April 1895 cross-examination confirm his devotion to champagne:
Mr. Oscar Wilde: Yes; iced champagne is a favourite drink of mine — strongly against my doctor’s orders.
Mr. Edward Carson, QC: Never mind your doctor’s orders, sir!
Mr. Oscar Wilde: I never do.
D is for DEXEDRINE
For Muriel Spark, Dexedrine was at once an appetite suppressant as well as a dieting aid. The author of Girls of Slender Means took the slimming pill for the first half of 1954 — a period of postwar food rationing. After more than half a year on the amphetamines, she started to have delusionary visions, schizophrenic-paranoid hallucinations not unlike those she depicted in The Comforters. Reading T. S. Eliot’s The Confidential Clerk, Spark believed that the play held codes targeted at her, and spent pages upon pages puzzling over the text. Friends described observing Spark as “watching someone using spiritual crossword puzzles.” Alan MacLean — Spark’s former editor — would later tell the New Yorker that she was “really quite batty” during the Dexedrine phase.
E is for ÉCLAIR FILLINGS
While Colette aspired to thinness (she devoted many a summer to shedding weight), girl still knew how to enjoy some pleasures. And there were some indulgences she just wouldn’t do without. Claude Chauvière, one of Colette’s secretaries, looked on with dismay, as her “passive, idle, greedy” employer scooped and ate the filling out of chocolate éclairs.
F is for FRITOS
Food can serve as creative incentive for the writer. Years ago Neil Simon mentioned a habit of rewarding himself for completing a difficult scene with a bag of Fritos. (He also pays homage to the chip in his plays, such as when it pops us as an important plot element in The Sunshine Boys.)
G is for GREENS
From Aristotle to Alice Walker, vegetarians have repeatedly demonstrated that one doesn’t need meat to fuel even the most active of brains. Other notable vegetarian writers: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Agostinho da Silvo, and Jonathan Safran Foer.
H is for HALVA
Jean-Paul Sartre was nuts about Simone de Beauvoir, but was nuts about halva more. During his time away at WWII, he craved the dense, nut-based dessert. In his letters to de Beauvoir, he would ask about his beloved treat. “Don’t forget,” he reminds her in 1939 to send two more boxes of halva. Then, in a following letter: disaster. “I was in an excellent mood today, and then I got your books (the Romains) but no halva. Is there another package?”
I is for ITALIAN SPAGHETTI
H. P. Lovecraft adored “Italian spaghetti,” especially with “meat-and-tomato sauce, utterly engulfed in a snowbank of grated Parmesan cheese.” Cheese was important. “How can anybody dislike cheese?” he wrote in a letter to fellow horror writer J. Vernon Shea, “I don’t suppose you would like spaghetti if you don’t like cheese, for the two rather go together.” Lovecraft not only enjoyed the taste of pasta — he appreciated its modest cost. “I have financial economy in eating worked out to a fine art,” he wrote in 1932. “I never spend more than $3.00 per week on food, and often not even nearly that.”
J is for JAVA
Marcel Proust famously once drank 16 consecutive cups of espresso. While Proust ran on java jitters, Gertrude Stein was quite concerned about the effects of caffeine. Though Stein’s doctor prescribed her a cup of coffee each morning, she remained wary of the drink. Stein was always nervous about getting nervous and the very thought of coffee added to this anxiety.
K is for KRISPY KREME DONUTS
Nora Ephron rhapsodized about Krispy Kremes in The New Yorker: “The Krispy Kreme Original Glazed doughnut is yeast-raised and light as a frosted snowflake. It is possible to eat three of them in one sitting without suffering any ill effects.” Ephron especially loved watching the donut machine at work: “The sight of all those doughnuts marching solemnly to their fate makes me proud to be an American. Sue me. That’s how I feel.”
L is for LOAVES
Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf were skilled bakers, both specializing in bread. You can even try a few of Dickinson’s original recipes. Percy Shelley — who often dieted on just bread and water — would have enjoyed such company. Shelley found it difficult to walk by a bakery without stopping in to buy a loaf. Rumor has it that he constantly stored bread in his pockets, leaving a trail of crumbs wherever he sat.
M is for MILK
When Molière got sick in 1667, he resorted to a milk-only diet for two months. During the 1830s, Honoré de Balzac went on milk-only diets to combat stomach problems. Franz Kafka was a lacto-vegetarian, also because of digestion complications.
N is for NOTHING
Emily and Charlotte Brontë both had difficulties with eating. Emily regulated her diet, which was described by her sister as “very simple and light.” Meanwhile, Charlotte also voiced difficulties with eating, specifically in public. She especially disliked eating out, which she found a bore.
J.M. Coetzee doesn’t “drink, smoke or eat meat,” and takes long bike rides in order to keep fit. In a 1988 interview, Gabriel García Márquez talked about his “perpetual diet,” which restricted his food intake — whether from willful dieting, or because he simply couldn’t afford to eat. When William Hazlitt was at his poorest, he had quite the irregular diet, often going without breakfast and dinner.
O is for OYSTERS
Anton Chekhov was a fan of oysters. Coincidentally, when Chekov died, his coffin was transported in a freight car with ‘OYSTERS’ in large letters on its side. Walt Whitman, also an oyster lover, often ate them for breakfast. When friend John Burroughs told the poet he ate “too much blood and fat,” he went on to recommend that oysters be dropped from Whitman’s morning menu.
Alternately, Isak Dinesen lost weight with the following diet: oysters and grapes, washed down with champagne.
P is for PLUM CAKE
For one breakfast, Jane Austen sat before a spread consisting of plum cake, pound cake, hot rolls, cold rolls, bread and butter, chocolate, coffee, and tea. Balance.
Q is for APPETITE-QUELLING
When especially hungry while living in Europe, Ernest Hemingway would go to a Luxembourg museum “belly-empty, hollow hungry” to stare at pictures of food. Hemingway felt that looking at Cézanne paintings of food not only helped him not to eat, but also fed his aesthetic appetite too. “I learned to understand Cézanne much better and to see how he made landscapes when I was hungry.”
R is for RABBIT STEW
On her honeymoon with Ted Hughes to Spain, Sylvia Plath packed a copy of Joy Of Cooking in her baggage. With Irma Rombauer’s guidance, she was able to make Hughes a “delectable” rabbit stew for his birthday. As she set up her life with Hughes, Plath would pore over the cookbook, “reading it like a rare novel.”
S is for SODA WATER
Slightly overweight as a child, Lord Byron became a chronic dieter in later life. Invited to dinner at the home of the poet Samuel Rogers, Byron was offered fish, mutton, and wine — all of which he refused. Upon being asked what he would eat, Byron replied: “Nothing but hard biscuits and soda-water.” Rogers couldn’t provide his guest with these, so Byron finally settled on “potatoes bruised down on his plate and drenched with vinegar.”
T is for TEA
Upon rising, Immanuel Kant would drink one or two cups of tea (always weak). John McPhee and Paul Auster also reportedly start the day with tea; as Simone de Beauvoir did, too. In the late 70s, Stephen King began teaching and set up a routine in order to continue his own creative work in his off hours. Before settling down to write in the morning, King had to have “a glass of water or a cup of tea” by his side. “The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day,” he wrote, “seems to be a way of saying to the mind, ‘You’re going to be dreaming soon.’” Jane Austen, of course, drank tea (though she disliked it with sugar). When working in the morning, C.S. Lewis loved having a good cup of tea brought to him. (He strongly believed that “Tea should be taken in solitude.”) The real question here is: who writes and doesn’t drink tea.
U is for UNORIGINAL
Jack Kerouac loved Chinese food (especially the pork dishes), but his favorite dessert couldn’t have been more American vanilla: apple pie à la mode.
P.G. Wodehouse’s typical breakfast involved a slice of coffee, toast with honey or marmalade, and tea. With this, he would read a “breakfast book,” usually a crime or mystery novel. He would get to work while smoking a pipe (obviously). Lunch usually meant one meat and two vegetables, followed by an English pudding. At around four o’clock, he would join his wife for English tea-time on good china and cucumber sandwiches. Jeeves!
V is for VANILLA PUDDING
Günter Grass has written nostalgically of “the vanilla pudding with almond slivers” that his father used to make.
W is for WAR RATIONS
Most British writers suffered from food (and paper!) rationing during WWII (and afterward, as demonstrated by Muriel Spark). Imported fruits like bananas were especially hard to come by. Once, on a rare occasion when Waugh’s wife managed to bring home three bananas for their children, Waugh proceeded this way: sitting down before the children, he peeled the bananas, slathered them with cream and sugar, and then ate every last one. Whether this illustrates the desperation of living under rationed conditions, or simply Waugh’s generally churlish demeanor, I couldn’t say.
X is for EXTREMES
Franz Kafka believed in chewing food 100 times per minute. In 1912, he called himself “the thinnest person I have ever known.” As a young adult, Victor Hugo would eat half an ox in one sitting — and then fast for three days.
Y is for YOLKS
When living in exile in the Channel Islands, Victor Hugo would rise at dawn and eat 2 raw eggs, drink a cup of cold coffee, then begin writing.
Z is for ZINGERS
Dorothy Parker fed her readers the wittiest zingers. And leading us back to our alphabet’s beginning, she once said, “Ducking for apples — change one letter and it’s the story of my life.”
Jane Hu knows the muffin man.