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Locusts, Cilantro, Elvis Presley

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As a young man studying in Amsterdam, Vincent van Gogh on August 18, 1877, wrote to his brother Theo, “I breakfasted on a piece of dry bread and a glass of beer—that is what Dickens advises for those who are on the point of committing suicide, as being a good way to keep them, at least for some time, from their purpose.”

Cornbread, hot biscuits, wheat bread, and fried chicken were among the foods that Mark Twain said couldn’t be cooked north of the Mason-Dixon line.

“As if I swallowed a baby,” said William Makepeace Thackeray about eating his first oyster.

Puréed applesauce—the first food eaten in outer space, by John Glenn in 1962. Shrimp cocktail, macaroni and cheese, candy-coated peanuts, Metamucil wafers—among what he ate thirty-six years later aboard the spaceship Discovery.

Tomato, potato, corn, beans, zucchini, squash, avocado, bell pepper, chili, and pineapple are among the foods that Christopher Columbus brought back to the Old World. Onion, garlic, wheat, barley, olives, and lettuce are among the foods he introduced to the New.

About cilantro in a dish, Julia Child said, “I would pick it out if I saw it and throw it on the floor.”

The choirmaster of the Cologne Cathedral gave sugar sticks to his young singers to keep them quiet during the long Nativity ceremony in 1670. They were shaped like a shepherd’s crook.

Thirty to sixty million—the estimate of buffalo in the United States in the early 1800s. 1,200—the estimate some ninety years later.

Vomitorium, noun: A large passageway in an ancient amphitheater out of which crowds emptied. In Antic Hay, published in 1924, Aldous Huxley became the first recorded author in English to state erroneously that it was a domestic room in which overfed Romans vomited after feasts.

“If you’re just going to sit there and stare at me, I’m going to bed,” Elvis Presley said, breaking an awkward silence when the Beatles visited him on August 27, 1965. As midnight snacks for his guests, he requested broiled chicken-livers wrapped in bacon and sweet-and-sour meatballs.

Breaking the necks of pigeons in the Luxembourg Gardens while the gendarme went for a glass of wine was supposedly how Ernest Hemingway on occasion fed his family in Paris in the 1920s. He hid the bodies in his son Bumby’s stroller. Sometimes when he went without, the novelist studied the paintings by Paul Cézanne, which “looked more beautiful if you were belly empty, hollow hungry.”

“I have made a bet, Mr. Coolidge, that I could get you to say more than two words,” a lady remarked to the president during a dinner. “You lose,” he responded.

“I am the emperor, and I want dumplings,” said Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria. His only lucid remark, the historian A. J. P. Taylor thought.

“I’m not leaving, and by the way I’m hungry,” President George W. Bush said on September 13, 2001, when he was told there was a credible threat to the White House. He ordered a cheeseburger.

Scurvy, or lack of vitamin C, killed the Danish-born explorer Vitus Bering in 1741. His men survived by clubbing seals—after smashing the cranium, brains spilling out and teeth in shards, “the beast still attacks the men with his flippers,” one sailor recalled.

About his habit of masturbating in public, Diogenes the Cynic said, “I only wish I could be rid of hunger by rubbing my belly.”

Kobe beef, black truffles, seared foie gras, aged Gruyère cheese, wild mushrooms, and flakes of gold leaf, are most of the components that comprise the hamburger served at the Wall Street Burger Shoppe. Price: $175.

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s digestive “milk cure” involved drinking a half pint of milk every half hour for twelve hours, supplemented by bran and paraffin four times a day, fruit twice a day, and two enemas a day.

“Hunger is the best sauce in the world,” wrote Miguel de Cervantes in Part II, Chapter V, of Don Quixote, published in 1615.

Paul Newman’s character amazingly eats fifty hard-boiled eggs in one hour in Cool Hand Luke. Sixty-five hard-boiled eggs eaten in sixty minutes and forty seconds is the actual world record, held by Sonya Thomas.

Canned food, George Orwell thought, made World War I possible.

To celebrate King Henri III of France’s visit to Venice in 1574, a banquet table was prepared with some 1,286 items—from napkins and cutlery to figures of popes—all made from spun sugar.

Between 1959 and 1962 in China, Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward increased industrial growth at the expense of agricultural output. More than 45 million people perished from famine and disease, as well as from floods, droughts, and locusts.

Among the oldest known cheeses—and reportedly Charlemagne’s favorite—Roquefort must be aged in specific limestone caves near Toulouse to earn the name. French law mandated this in 1411.

The first Olympic champion on record, Coroebus, was a cook. He won the sprint in 776 BC.

In the 1790s in the United States, the average American over the age of fifteen consumed almost six gallons of pure alcohol per annum. The modern figure is 2.8.

As to why he didn’t drink water, an inebriated W. C. Fields purportedly responded, “Fish fuck in it.”

Charles Lindbergh bought five sandwiches for his flight across the Atlantic in 1927, saying, “If I get to Paris, I won’t need any more, and if I don’t get to Paris, I won’t need any more either.” It took him thirty-three and a half hours. Amelia Earhart in 1932 flew across the Atlantic in fourteen hours and fifty-six minutes, during which she drank chicken soup from a thermos, and a can of tomato juice—opened with an ice pick.

At thirty-one ounces, the Trenta, a new drink size introduced by Starbucks in 2011, holds the same volume as the average capacity of the human stomach.

The G8 met in Hokkaido, Japan, in July 2008 to address the global food crisis. Over an eighteen-course meal—including truffles, caviar, conger eel, Kyoto beef, and champagne—prepared by sixty chefs, the world leaders came to a consensus: “We are deeply concerned that the steep rise in global food prices coupled with availability problems in a number of developing countries is threatening global food security.”

To the memory of David Markson (1927-2010)

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  • On the comment regarding buffalo: I feel this present day number is inaccurate, as I've seen around 1200 buffalo in one valley in 2007. Yellowstone holds at least 6000. I suppose it still holds its point.

    Posted by BenH on Tue 13 Sep 2011

  • @BenH: The estimate of 1200 was for 1890, not today.

    Posted by Edgar on Tue 13 Sep 2011

  • i love that this article is dedicated to markson!

    Posted by brandon on Wed 14 Sep 2011

  • Amelia Earhart opening a can with an ice pick isn't that unusual: dedicated can openers were not a common thing for the first 100 or so years of eating canned food - you used what you had around.

    Posted by Boobounder on Wed 14 Sep 2011

  • "Diogenes was washing cabbages, and seeing him pass by: "If thou couldst live on cabbage," said he, "thou wouldst not fawn upon a tyrant," to whom Aristippus replied; "And if thou knewest how to live amongst men, thou wouldst not be washing cabbages."
    Montaigne

    Posted by Gustavo Patino on Sat 26 Nov 2011

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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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