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
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
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
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 –
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
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.