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Bites of big eaters

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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.

You’ll find many smorgasbords of history in What the Great Ate, but my brothers tell me that at events to promote the book they are often asked to talk about their own experiences with food, to offer up their own zany stories.

Mark has little trouble telling tales on Matt. He suggests that maybe Matt’s taste for exotic cuisines began when he was only a year old. One day we discovered the turtle missing and after 20 minutes of scouring the house to find him (or her?), someone glanced over at Matt. As Matt smiled, the back legs of the turtle popped out the sides of his mouth.

Unfortunately, Matt has few stories on Mark. Mark liked everything that was ever put on his plate. This made the rest of us look bad.

We younger siblings were a tad more discerning (picky). For instance, Matt, who loves Mexican food, can’t stand cheese. I, a red-blooded member of a family with fine Irish credentials, hated — of all things! — potatoes . . . unless deep-fried, of course.

Night after night as a kid, I’d look for my opportunity to sneak the small dollop of that awful white stuff, which my Father insisted be placed on my plate, over to the large mass of it on my older sister’s plate — without my Father seeing me do it.

Our entire family loved cereal. When we were teenagers, my Mother went on a health-nut kick. In came whole wheat breads and fruits and vegetables. Out went white bread and sugary cereals. So, at midnight on any given Friday night, as we returned to our humble abode, we would look for Matt. In hushed tones designed not to wake our parents, we’d ask Matt whether he “had the stuff.” Under his bed and in other hideaways, Matt was known to keep stocks of black-market items like Quisp and Cap’n Crunch.

But what about the great? Well, they seem to have the same array of strange tastes and eccentric behavior concerning food as do the rest of us.

Which reminds me that William Faulkner once turned down an invitation from First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy to dine at the White House, commenting, “That’s a long way to go just to eat.”

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