David Bruce: Food Anecdotes

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Enrico Caruso was capable of great kindness. While staying at the Knickerbocker Hotel, he became friends with the proprietor, James Regan. After noticing a line of shabbily dressed men waiting outside a side door at the hotel, he asked Mr. Regan who they were. It turned out that they were impoverished men waiting for a handout of whatever food was left over after the hotel restaurant closed. Mr. Caruso asked if the men ever were served steak, and of course they weren’t. Therefore, Mr. Caruso said, “Those men should have beefsteak. They are poor and cold, and steaks would be good for them. I tell you what, Jimmy — tonight, you give them good, thick beefsteaks instead of the stew, and send the bill to me.”

George Zoritch’s mother was in France during World War II, but after the war she went to America to be with her famous dancer son. In New York, she met a friend of her son’s because Mr. Zoritch was busy performing in Los Angeles. Mr. Zoritch was delighted with everything American, until her son’s friend offered her a hot dog. Shocked, she replied, “During the War in Europe, when we were completely out of food, people would ever dare to eat dogs! Here we are in the land of plenty and you mean to tell me people eat dog meat?”

When opera singer Ernestine Schumann-Heink was a little girl, her pregnant mother developed a craving for Swiss cheese but did not have the money to pay for it. Little Ernestine went to the grocery shop owner and worked out a deal with her. If she gave Ernestine the Swiss cheese, Ernestine would sing and dance the Czardas for her. The deal was accepted, and the grocery shop owner was so pleased with the Czardas that she gave Ernestine an apple as a tip.

Very early in his career, Russian bass Feodor Chaliapine came at times very close to starving. Often, he slept long hours, because when one is asleep, one is not hungry. He writes in his autobiography, Pages From My Life, that sometimes he slept for “more than forty-eight hours at a time.” (He discovered that it was possible to get used to being hungry for two days in a row, but unfortunately sometimes he had no food for three or even four days in a row.)

Arturo Toscanini and his wife, Carla, once visited the home of Arthur O’Connell. Mrs. Toscanini, always a curious sort, went into the kitchen to investigate a huge pot of spaghetti. The Italian cook, always a sensitive sort, abandoned the kitchen to ask Mr. O’Connell who “that woman” was. Fortunately, the cook was pleased to learn that “that woman” was Mrs. Toscanini, and fortunately, the spaghetti was excellent and enjoyed by all.

Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, once bet Mark Antony, the Roman consul in Egypt with whom she was having an affair, that she could eat a meal that would cost one million sesterces. That was a large amount of money — several years’ wages for an average worker. She won the bet by placing very valuable pearls in a goblet of vinegar, then drinking the vinegar after the vinegar had dissolved the pearls.

Mid-1950s Metropolitan Opera conductor Fausto Cleva made gnocchi, a particular kind of Italian homemade noodles. At one of his dinners, Mr. Cleva was delighted to hear fellow conductor Arturo Toscanini praise his gnocchi: “Bravo, Cleva!” “Don’t say that, Maestro,” Mr. Cleva joked, “or I will tell people that you praised me by saying ‘Bravo.’” Mr. Toscanini joked back, “Only for the noodles, Cleva.”

While making movies, comedian W.C. Fields kept a thermos filled with martinis near him. However, when he was asked what was in the thermos, he invariably replied, “Pineapple juice.” One day, a jokester dumped out the martinis and replaced them with pineapple juice. When W.C. Fields discovered the switch, he complained loudly, “Somebody put pineapple juice in my pineapple juice!”

While on his way to Dallas, Texas, during the days of Jim Crow, conductor Pierre Monteux stopped at a restaurant, where the waitress told him that she could not serve him. When Mr. Monteux asked why not, she said, “Because, sir, this restaurant is for colored folk.” Mr. Monteux replied, “But we are colored, my dear. We are PINK!” Breakfast was served, and it was excellent.

Pol Plançon enjoyed rich food, but as he grew older people worried that his taste for rich food might harm his operatic voice. When Antonio Scotti approached him with this fear, Mr. Plançon replied, “My dear friend, I shall live but once. And I can pay no higher tribute to life than to enjoy to the full all the fine things it has to offer.”

Comedian Bill Hicks did not care for Gallagher, a comedian known for hitting food with sledgehammers: “Only America could produce a comic who ends his show by destroying good food with a sledgehammer. Gee, I wonder why we’re hated the world over?”

When young Alicia Markova was dancing for Serge Diaghilev in the Ballets Russes, her governess would not allow her to eat chocolates, so fellow dancer Alexandra Danilova brought her some during morning rehearsals, but she would always tell her, “But if you no dance well, I bring you no more!”

Feodor Chaliapin sometimes clowned around on stage. During a performance of Mefistofele in Columbus, Ohio, he made co-star Claudia Muzio break out laughing by singing in Italian in front of the footlights, “Are we going to get a good spaghetti after the performance tonight?”

Oxford classical scholar Richard Porson was invited to dinner by poet Samuel Rogers. However, Mr. Porson did not want to accept the invitation, so he declined by saying, “Thank you, no. I dined yesterday.”

While in America, mid-1950s Metropolitan Opera basso Cesare Siepi ate American food for a good reason: “In Memphis, how can I trust a plate of spaghetti? I have broiled meat and a salad.”

Voltaire loved to drink coffee. When he was told that it was a slow poison, he replied, “It must be slow, for I have been drinking it for sixty-five years and I am not yet dead.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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