David Bruce: Food Anecdotes

512px-Jackie_Gleason

Jackie Gleason (Public Domain, via Wiki Commons)

Comedian Jackie Gleason’s hiring procedures were somewhat unorthodox. He once hired a woman named Sydell to be his secretary because he liked her answer to one of his questions during an interview. He asked, “Do you know shorthand?” She replied, “Yes, but it takes me longer.” Sydell turned out to be an excellent secretary. Mr. Gleason once wanted to talk to President Lyndon Baines Johnson. She got through to an undersecretary of state who first apologized to her because the President was meeting with his cabinet and then promised her that President Johnson would return her call later. President Johnson, a big fan of Mr. Gleason, in fact returned her call. On a train trip, Mr. Gleason ordered a dozen barbequed pork ribs in the train’s dining car. Unfortunately, they weren’t on the menu. No barbequed pork ribs? When you have a secretary like Sydell, that is not a problem. The train stopped, she sent a telegram ahead, and soon the train stopped again, and a deliveryman from a Chinese restaurant met the train and delivered the barbequed pork ribs.

Andrew Zimmern hosts a TV show called Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel. As you would expect, he eats a lot of bizarre foods — foods more bizarre than chocolate-covered crickets — on the show. The show is entertaining and family friendly, and one of its byproducts is that it teaches kids to be more open-minded about food. Each week, Mr. Zimmern says that he gets a few letters that basically say this: “My kids ate chicken nuggets and PB&J, and then we started watching your show, and we said to him over one dinner, ‘Well, Mr. Zimmern would eat it.’ And that just started him off. He started shoving everything he could into his mouth.” Mr. Zimmern says, “I just think that’s fantastic.”

When Groucho Marx, star of such movies as Horsefeathers with his famous brothers, was a young man in vaudeville, he once worked at an Atlantic City theater whose manager also ran a boarding house on the waterfront where entertainers stayed. This manager was a man who knew how to save a dollar. Every meal featured fish because outside Groucho’s window, the theater manager kept a huge fishing net into which Groucho’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner swam. Perhaps unnecessarily, Groucho says that after his engagement at the Atlantic City theater was over, for an entire week he ate nothing but roast beef.

After retiring as a conductor, Leopoldo Mugnone gave voice lessons. Among his pupils was the husband of Metropolitan Opera mezzo Gladys Swarthout, Frank Chapman. Unfortunately, Mr. Chapman lacked the talent of his wife, in Mr. Mugnone’s opinion. While trying to teach Mr. Chapman the role of the baritone in Traviata, Mr. Mugnone grew discouraged. He stood before a portrait of Verdi and said, “Papa Verdi, forgive me for giving lessons to this baritone, but I have to eat.”

One thing Paul Newman cared about strongly was salad dressing, and salad dressing was the first product that appeared under the brand name “Newman’s Own.” Early in his marriage to Joanne Woodward, they went on a date to Chasen’s, a very fancy Los Angeles restaurant. She remembers, “It was one of our first stylish meals out, and he took an already oiled salad to the men’s room, washed it clean, dried it with towels, and returned to the table to do things right, with oil cut by a dash of water.”

Some women subtract a few years from their age to make themselves seem younger than they are, but Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders adds a couple of years. Why? She is a vegetarian, and she figures that if she says that she is older than she really is, people will look at her and think about vegetarianism, “Maybe there’s something in it.” But if she were to subtract a couple of years from her age, people might look at her and say, “Well, it hasn’t done her any favors.”

Jazz musician Ornette Coleman keeps trying new things. When Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam ate dinner with him, Mr. Coleman poured red wine into his sorbet and asked, “Ever had red wine and raspberry sorbet?” After Mr. Vedder answered, “No,” Mr. Coleman said, “Neither have I.” According to Mr. Vedder, “I think that sums him up. He might be in his late 70s, but that was probably the sixth or seventh new thing he tried that day.”

Was Steve Jobs of Apple Computer obsessive? When his family needed to buy a new washing machine, he and his family discussed it during dinner for two weeks. They discussed what an ideal machine would have: What would be its ecological footprint? How much water would it use? What would be its cleaning ability? Then Mr. Jobs bought the best washing machine available: an expensive one from Germany.

After her parents divorced, Sarah Michelle Gellar of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame was raised by her mother. She and her mother — a kindergarten teacher — struggled financially for a while. They used to joke that they ate pasta six days a week — then splurged on Friday night when they ate macaroni and cheese. Now, of course, they eat much better.

Mexican artist Diego Rivera loved pre-Columbian art, and he spent much money to collect it. Once, one of his wives, Lupe Marin, got angry at him, so she ground up some of his pre-Columbian statues, then added hot sauce and served it to him for supper, arguing that since he had spent their food money on the works of art, he could eat them.

The father of choreographer/dancer Bella Lewitzky used to paint. He used food in the settings for his still lifes. Sometimes, a guest would take a piece of food, intending to snack on it, but Bella or her sister would take the food from the guest and put it back in the still-life setting because they valued their father’s paintings.

Being a musician can be a hard job. Early in their career, Johnny Cash and his band used to carry shotguns while traveling by car to and from gigs. That way, if they saw ducks or rabbits or raccoons, aka live “fixin’s,” as they were driving, they could stop and shoot dinner.

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