10 Historical Figures Who Were Total Foodies

Everyone appreciates food as a necessity, but many enjoy paying homage to the sensual artistry behind selecting and preparing the highest quality ingredients. In spite of the attitudes displayed by many so-called “foodies” these days, the only real qualification for the title is to love and appreciate all facets of the culinary arts. Even the simplest, cheapest of fresh, lovingly tended fare can ignite passion in connoisseurs from all walks of life. One does not have to have stacks of Bon Appétit (or even cook!) to be considered a foodie…and anyone who says otherwise is just an elitist snob who will eventually go away if ignored. Unsurprisingly, food has played an integral role in human history far, far beyond merely providing them with the energy and nutrients necessary for the species to propagate. History and creativity alike abound with individuals and organizations who consider amazing meals something wholly transcendent of their nurturing qualities. Many, many more exist beyond these men and women, of course! So consider the following listing more of a bread course than a full dining experience.

1.) Charles Darwin

Famous (and somewhat infamous) naturalist Charles Darwin is known more for his scientific exploits aboard the H.M.S. Beagle than his gustatory leanings. But it turns out that Darwin’s predilection for rare and exotic species transcended mere evolutionary inquiry. As the president of Cambridge’s Glutton Club, he and the other members noshed on some rather unorthodox (for England, anyways) cuts of meat. Bitterns, hawks and owls all landed on their plates, though the last on the list stimulated their inner chickens with its grossly unappealing stringiness. Although the Glutton Club fizzled out after the little run-in with the wizened old Strigiforme, Darwin continued with his foodie adventures while exploring the world on scientific expeditions. Some report that the ardent gourmand dined on armadillo meat while aboard the Beagle, and considered an unknown rodent the greatest animal he ever tasted. An impressive feat, considering some of the rarities he consumed.

2.) Oscar Wilde

As a child, influential Irish wit Oscar Wilde grew up eating well thanks to his wealthy family’s financial interests in the sugar trade. Even his mother and father met while protesting the potato famine. Unsurprisingly, allusions to food frequently found their way into most of Wilde’s works. No matter the audience or the style, he quipped his way through numerous food anecdotes and references – including 2 of his most beloved works, The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde traveled all over the world, dining with everyone from poet Walt Whitman to silver miners in Colorado (who named a shaft after him for joining them in a subterranean meal). One of his lovers, Lord Alfred Douglas (“Bosie”), helped encourage his financial instability. The pair bonded (and fell apart) over their mutual lust for the finest fare that Paris and other renowned gastric cities had to offer. Beyond Bosie, however, Wilde did have a habit of taking favored working-class men out for fancy meals and even fancier wines.

3.) Catherine de’ Medici

Because of her position as Queen of France, historians estimate that Catherine de’ Medici may have popularized the use of forks in her court – and beyond. Italian society, from which she originated, was the only one in Europe who did not consider the utensil haughty. The same likely goes for other food and food accessories as well, though the legend of Catherine de’ Medici overshadows her reality. Certainly a trendsetter in her own time, rumors of the Queen bringing every kind of dessert, pasta, fruits or vegetable to France were likely exaggerated nevertheless. Nor did she bring her own squadron of chefs into the country, either. But the woman deserves credit where credit is due. de’ Medici probably did popularize a few gustatory pleasures in her adopted home country, though realistically not as many as people claim, and threw some magnificently opulent parties while reigning alongside her underage son King Charles IX. Given her fondness for the herbaceous fare of her native land, it stands to reason that some of these events introduced the French peoples to at least something new and exotic. The fable did have to start somewhere, after all!

4.) Ernest Hemingway

Anyone who has ever read A Moveable Feast knows that writer Ernest Hemingway loved himself some French food and wine, though his passion extended beyond European borders. The entire memoir recounts his expatriate experiences along with other influential creative types such as Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Pablo Picasso, and his gustatory pleasures play an integral role. Early in his career, he wrote about the proper way to fry up a fresh-caught trout. One of his most beloved fictitious works, The Old Man and the Sea, deals with the social and political ramifications of marlin fishing. When money came flowing in, Hemingway indulged his palate with the freshest, highest-quality oysters, fish, and shrimp he could find – holding a special fondness for those he found in Paris. Such was the master’s love of food that Craig Boreth published The Hemingway Cookbook overflowing with anecdotes and recipes straight from or inspired by the eponymous writer himself.

5.) Andy Warhol

Known mostly for his prints of soup cans and bananas, Andy Warhol greatly preferred sugary treats over healthier, more savory foodstuffs. Anecdotes abound of the revolutionary artist’s unquenchable desire for sweets, with some alleging that he would patronize bakeries and devour entire birthday cakes alone. He collected cookie jars that went for a quarter of a million dollars at auction following his 1987 passing. Some report that a customs search of his luggage yielded an unexpected cache of sugary substances, with candy, cookies and gum practically bursting the seams. Others claim the artist would refrain from noshing on any fancy foods at parties, dinners and other events, responding to any inquiries by declaring that only sweets sufficed. So while not a foodie in the traditional gourmand sense, Warhol still appreciated at least one segment enough to warrant inclusion.

6.) Paul Newman

Popular actor Paul Newman loved and appreciated food so much he started his very own company dedicated to creating and distributing everything from salad dressing to frozen pizzas. After taxes, Newman’s Own donates all of its profits to thousands of charities around the world; it has raised over $300 million since being founded in 1982. Newman and his business partner, writer A.E. Hotchner, initially set out to start a small cottage industry that sold their homemade salad dressing. The actor whipped up his now-iconic recipe after finding the store brands wholly unsatisfying, giving out bottles of the stuff to friends and family as gifts. From there, everything expanded at an unexpected clip, with myriad other products joining the original salad accessories. Nell Newman, daughter of the co-founder, opened up her own spinoff company specializing in organic products in 1993. Only a devoted foodie with plenty of resources at his disposal would launch his very own (and very charitable!) company just to promote good taste amongst the populace.

7.) Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in a South African prison, and he blended DIY sensibilities with a love and appreciation of food by starting his very own garden. To him, the vegetables represented far more than self-reliance – tending to the plants’ every need allowed him to feel some semblance of control in a squelching environment. It kept him sane by providing him with an opportunity to create something beautiful out of seemingly nothing and take pride in a particularly quality harvest. Mandela’s example perfectly embodies how food transcends the pleasurable and stands as necessary for more than just nutrition. Here, it kept one of South Africa’s most influential leaders mentally and physically stimulated in the face of adversity. One wonders how Apartheid would have played out were Mandela denied rights to keep his prison garden. Even following his release, he would liken the small freedoms granted by the small plot of land to the universal quest for personal control and stability. Because of his ability to fully understand the sociopolitical importance of food, Nelson Mandela has certainly earned a spot on this list.

8.) Henry VIII

Mentioning King Henry VIII and food together in a sentence usually conjures up images of a bulky man chomping down on a gargantuan turkey leg at the local Renaissance Faire. But the real royal’s Epicurean pleasures extended well beyond the comparatively mundane fowl. In his time, he understandably built quite a reputation for himself as one of the most opulent entertainers in the world. The massive feasts thrown in his castle halls featured many food items considered exotic even today. Grilled beaver tails, swan, whale, peacock and plenty of other eats joined up with the usual chickens, pigs, and cows on Henry VIII’s generous tables. And considering Medieval cooks never liked the idea of wasting any part of an animal, their internal organs made an appearance as well. Few will argue that the king was an easy-going man, of course, but he did know how to throw a party and appreciate food with nearly superhuman vigor.

9.) Virginia Woolf

Famous for the quote, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well,” author Virginia Woolf wrote some of the most incredibly sumptuous food porn this side of Hemingway. A Room of One’s Own, for example, contains lengthy descriptions of fictional meals that would send any foodie into uncontrollable swooning. In a manner similar to the Nelson Mandela entry, she found sociopolitical commentary in the way groups and individuals took their daily bread. Every scene involving a nosh came laden with allusions and allegories intending to develop characters and drive home the works’ overarching themes. Like all the other writers on this list, Woolf found inspiration and artistry in the act of preparing and consuming the very best foods available. The connection between the literary and the culinary is undeniably intimate and mutually beneficial.

10.) Marcel Proust

Writers appear so frequently on this list because of how ardently they convey their passion for food in their works. Marcel Proust, much like the others, appreciated chefs as artists and their creations as aesthetic treats for all senses. In Search of Lost Time abounds with lush descriptions of meals – enough to inspire Shirley King to publish Dining with Marcel Proust, a cookbook featuring recipes for the dishes he so richly recounted in that particular piece. Peers described him as a nearly insatiable gourmand, though over time he narrowed his focus to appreciating the simple, satisfying delights of coffee, croissants and madelines. Regardless of what he consumed, the writer thought that the noshes opened up ultimate truths on the nature of reality and creativity.

Foodies come from all walks of life – no formal training, extra tastebuds or budget equal to the GDP of a struggling nation required! Anyone who says otherwise is quite wrong indeed. Therefore, it should come as no surprise whatsoever that historical figures new and old have discovered a plethora of pleasure from everything edible. From a simple cup of hot, satisfying coffee to giant chunks of roasted whale, they understood that food piques the senses in some very curious, unique and entirely beautiful ways.

Posted on 11 October '10 by , under Featured.