Eat, Drink, and Be Notable

By Charles Chappell ’64,
Professor Emeritus of English

Jean-Paul Sartre would not eat crabs and lobsters because they reminded him of insects.

Galileo Galilei engaged in an egg fight with a Jesuit priest.

Flannery O’Connor received a letter from a reader who complained that one of O’Connor’s books "left a bad taste in my mouth." O’Connor’s reply: "You weren’t supposed to eat it."

Georgia O’Keefe read cookbooks in bed at night before she went to sleep.

Maria Callas, in preparation for an operatic role, lost weight by ingesting a tapeworm.

Henry Ford regularly ate a lunch featuring weed sandwiches.

Former and current Hendrix students of philosophy, physics, literature, art, music, and business will find these morsels of unusual information featured in the 2010 book What the Great Ate, written by alumnus Mark Jacob ’76, and his brother Matthew Jacob. Readers devoted to all of the other traditional liberal arts disciplines, as well as people who maintain a keen interest in popular culture or in the art and science of cuisine, will encounter in this delightful volume a treasure trove of facts concerning the food choices and dining habits of hundreds of famous or infamous men and women representing many diverse cultures and different eras.

On May 21, 2011, Mark Jacob will lead a discussion of this book at the annual Alumni Odyssey College to be held on campus.

Recently, Mark cheerfully agreed to answers questions concerning his career as a journalist and author and about the evolution of What the Great Ate.

Q. After your graduation from Hendrix in 1976 as an English major, did you directly enter the field of journalism? Please summarize your occupational history during the past 35 years.

A. After Hendrix, I had two job offers: Become a sportswriter at the Pine Bluff Commercial newspaper or manage a Taco Bell in Little Rock. The Taco Bell job paid $10 a week more, but I opted for the newspaper job. After a year, I moved to Boulder, Colo., where I washed dishes and processed magazine subscription letters for a year. Then back to Arkansas, where I was a copy editor for the Arkansas Democrat for six months and the Arkansas Gazette for five years. Then I moved to Chicago to work at the Chicago Sun-Times as a copy editor. I eventually was promoted to executive news editor and then Sunday editor. After 14 years at the Sun-Times, I jumped to the Chicago Tribune as a news editor. I was promoted to foreign/national news editor and then to deputy metro editor, the position I now hold.

Q. By what process and over how long a period of time did you and Matthew decide to undertake the project that resulted in the publication of What the Great Ate?

A. I had already co-authored three books when I persuaded my younger brother Matthew to collaborate on a book that would be his first. We spent at least six months brainstorming dozens of ideas before we settled on gathering stories about the dining habits of history’s most famous people. Matt and I both like history, and he’s a foodie. So it made sense. I was trying to get a literary agent to help me sell a novel I’d written, and the agent asked if I had any non-fiction projects. I told him about our idea and that I had come up with the title "What the Great Ate." He said he wanted to represent us. I had already been collecting historical trivia for many years (I co-write a history feature for the Chicago Tribune called "10 Things You Might Not Know"), so that gave us a start. Then Matt and I spent about two years or so working on the book.

Q. At the end of the book you include a "Selected Bibliography" that covers 19 pages. What methods of research did you and Matthew employ to be able to conduct this massive gathering of facts?

A. We are speed-readers. We drafted a list of hundreds of "greats" and then checked out books about them and searched for articles online. One weekend, I speed-read about 2,000 pages from four different histories of Richard Wagner. He was a detestable guy, and I’m not just saying that because he consumed my weekend. Here’s another trick: We would go to Google Books on the web and type in search terms such as "Eisenhower" and "breakfast," or "Amelia Earhart" and "meat." Sounds time-consuming, and it was, but we found fun stories that way. We also read many, many histories of food. One of my favorites was a history of bread. Did you know that the Eucharist that Catholics take at mass used to be the size and shape of a wreath and feed an entire congregation? Another important aspect of the research was debunking stories that were too good to be true. For example, we got a nutritionist to help us disprove the story that Elvis Presley’s daily calorie intake was equivalent to that of an Asian elephant. Elvis ate a lot, but not that much.

Q. You organize the book into chapters based on the principle of the professional endeavors or life statuses of groups of individuals: Rulers; Writers; Prophets and Philosophers; nine more chapters. How did you decide upon this structure and upon the sequence, with (in this era of obsession with celebrities) stage and screen stars coming sixth and musicians ninth?

A. We tried to find categories that would cover most of humanity and were of interest to readers. We probably could have organized it in any of a dozen ways, but this way seemed to work. The book is intended to be both amusing and informative, so we knew we had to include movie stars and musicians. But we didn’t want the book to seem too frivolous, so we put the chapters about world leaders and religious figures at the front.

Q. Did you and Matthew consider devoting an entire chapter to Elvis?

A. We certainly had enough material to do that, but it would have broken the format. Besides, we wanted to touch on as many "greats" as possible. There’s an excellent book devoted to Elvis’ diet – The Life and Cuisine of Elvis Presley by David Adler. That book was helpful to us. But in general, we found our anecdotes about famous people by sifting through long biographies in order to sift out the one funny story that might be on Page 342. And believe me, food anecdotes are not flagged in any indexes. You simply have to read the whole book. Food must have been unimportant to the architect Le Corbusier, because I didn’t find a single food story in his entire biography. It’s a wonder he didn’t starve to death.

Q. Please talk about the website and the blog that you and your brother have created in connection with your book.

A. We created whatthegreatate.org to promote the book, and we continue to post interesting facts several days per week. Since the book came out last summer, we have encountered a lot of new food facts. For example, Tina Fey said that "the recurring dream of my childhood is to be in a room up to my neck in McDonald’s French fries and I’ve got to eat my way out." She said that after we had finished our book. Maybe we’ll put that story in a sequel someday.

Q. Please describe the three books that you have published before this one.

A. The Game That Was: The George Brace Baseball Photo Collection (Contemporary Books, 1996), co-authored with Richard Cahan. This collection of black-and-white photos, the vast majority never before published, was praised by the New York Times Book Review.

Wrigley Field: A Celebration of the Friendly Confines (Contemporary Books, 2002), co-authored with Stephen Green. Photos by Green, the Cubs’ official photographer, were combined with my text. I got terrific access to the ballpark, including spending a game inside the scoreboard with the guys who manually change the scores. I also got to interview Ernie Banks and ghost-write his foreword.

Chicago Under Glass: Early Photographs from the Chicago Daily News (University of Chicago Press, 2007). co-authored with Richard Cahan, sponsored by the Chicago History Museum. This was an examination of the glass-plate negatives produced by the Daily News from 1900 to 1930, with captions that provided historical insight into that era.

I also write fiction. An unfulfilled goal is to get a novel published, but my short stories have appeared in the literary magazines Other Voices, Pikestaff Forum, Samsara and Minnesota Review. My non-fiction articles have been published in Library Quarterly, Chicago magazine and Chicago History magazine.

Q. Heartiest congratulations on your winning of the Pulitzer Prize. As you may know, two other alumni – Mary Ann
Gwinn ’73 and Doug Blackmon ’86 – join you in having won this highly prestigious award. Please summarize the work that you did resulting in this honor.

A. I was part of a team of journalists who won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism. But it was a staff award, with dozens of Tribune employees involved and no one cited by name. Frankly, there were others on the staff that did much more than I did. It was an excellent series. Called "Gateway to Gridlock," it explained why O’Hare Airport is such a disaster for travelers. We revealed chronic overbooking that guarantees that planes are late, plus preferential treatment for some passengers at the expense of others.

Q. What are your most vivid memories of your experiences working as a member of The Profile staff?

A. When I was a freshman and worked on The Profile, the editor was Larry Jegley ’74, who is now the prosecuting attorney for central Arkansas. We would go down to the Log Cabin Democrat every two weeks, where our news stories had been set into print and were waiting for us. We’d use X-acto knives to slice the copy into strips and put melted wax on the back. Finally we would "paste up" the newspaper pages by hand. The process was barbaric—just a little more sophisticated than chipping words into rocks.

The next year I was co-editor with Junius Cross ’75. We went hunting for controversy, which is what newspapers are supposed to do. In an interview with the chief officials of the Hendrix administration, we learned that these leaders believed our students to be satisfied with the strict dormitory visitation policy then in effect. When we published the interview, the resulting uproar led to a reform of the policy. We also caused trouble when Congressman Wilbur Mills got into a scandal in Washington with a stripper named Fannie Fox, also known as the Argentine Firecracker. The new social science center on campus had just been named for Mills, and we demanded a name change. I know now that we were wrong about that stance. Mills was actually a responsible lawmaker with a temporary drinking problem, and later he reformed himself nobly. It’s easy for 19-year-olds to be overly judgmental.

Q. Do you have any particular recollections relating to food while you were attending Hendrix?

A. I ate at Hulen Hall, since my parents paid for it and I was quite poor in college. I liked the food quite a lot. I recall mixing red Jell-O and vanilla ice cream for dessert every night. (I think of the Hendrix cafeteria whenever I tell the story of Maya Lin, the designer of the Vietnam War memorial on the mall in Washington. Lin was a student at Yale when she created the winning design, and her brainstorm occurred in the school cafeteria. She created the original model out of mashed potatoes. And then she ate her design.)

I lived in Couch Hall and Martin Hall, where we ordered pizza deliveries a lot (my roommate got a monthly Social Security check, and spent it on pizza for himself and his friends). We drank Tang during the day and Pabst Blue Ribbon at night.

In the student union, we used to order "grichburgers," which were cheeseburgers cooked like grilled-cheese sandwiches.

Late at night, we would go to an all-night diner down the road. I’m not sure what it was really called, but we always referred to it as the Glittering Jesus Truck Stop, or GJ’s, because there were religious icons inside. We were served by an old waitress we called the skull lady.

Mark Jacobs will discuss What the Great Ate at Alumni Odyssey College May 21-22.
www.hendrix.edu/odysseycollege