Paul Jacob

When I think back to my parents’ dinner table, when my five siblings and I were growing up, food just isn’t my main memory. More fondly, I recall the consistent and consistently loud banter across the table concerning current events, politics, philosophy, religion.

So, I wondered what on earth my two brothers, Matthew and Mark Jacob, were doing writing a book about food?

My oldest brother, Mark, is deputy metro editor at the Chicago Tribune, and was part of the team that won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism. He has authored three previous books, one of them not about baseball. Through the years, my younger brother, Matthew, has written opinion columns for the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Boston Globe and other print and online media.

So I knew they could write. But about food?

Admittedly, Matt makes a mean berry pie. And he certainly knows the best restaurants. And now I’ve learned he even hosts a blog called Foodphoria. But, well, to say Mark can cook is sort of like saying “one can cook.”

Then, after receiving my free copy of the very reasonably priced book ($14), I realized that What the Great Ate is not just about food. As its subtitle informs, it is “A Curious History of Food & Fame.”

Fame combined with food is what makes this book fun. A feast of fun.

The book’s easy to pick up and read from start to finish, or to nibble on a little at a time. It’s full of bite-size anecdotes, a paragraph or three in length, offering insights into the rich, the brilliant, the famous and the crazy. These various historical nuggets are divided into chapters dedicated to the culinary capers of capitalists, presidents, world rulers, movie stars, athletes, explorers, philosophers, scientists and more.

Now I know that:

  • Thomas Jefferson introduced eggplant to the country, grew and ate tomatoes at a time when many thought them to be poisonous, and wrote the first American recipe for ice cream, still on file at the Library of Congress.
  • During the strike at the Gdansk shipyards, Lech Walesa would speak to the press over lunch each day, except for the days his wife prepared his favorite fish for lunch. On those days, the media had to wait.
  • Before Margaret Thatcher was prime minister of the UK, she was part of a corporate team that came up with a super soft ice cream called Mr. Whippy.
  • Saddam Hussein loved Raisin Bran Crunch, but apparently hated Fruit Loops.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.