‘If you want to know the measure of a man’ says an old French proverb, ‘just watch him in the kitchen.’ There may well be something in that. Because while we know full well the history-book feats and crowning achievements of the world’s greatest gentlemen, we often find ourselves wondering about their gentler, more human aspects. And nothing is more revealing than how they prepared their favourite meals. From the rugged charbroil of Hemingway’s hamburgers, to the silken cream of Kennedy’s seafood chowder, these secret recipes speak volumes about the great men who invented them.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Quiche Lorraine
‘I’m not talking about food: It’s a miserable subject since I’m on a diet’ said Alfred Hitchcock to a young interviewer unfortunate enough to have caught him on a bad day. But catch him on a good day and the rotund master of suspense could hold court on any number of culinary matters, and was often known to share his finely-tuned recipes with the carousel of stars that worked under his exacting rule. The pick of the bunch, according to Hollywood lore, was his decadent take on that french pantry classic: the quiche lorraine.
2 cups pastry flour
1/2 cup butter
1 egg yolk
1/4 cup cold water
2 or 3 slices cooked diced ham
2 onions, sliced
Dash of cayenne pepper
Light grating of nutmeg
2 cups hot milk
Work lightly together the pastry flour, butter, egg yolk, a pinch of salt and cold water. Chill the dough for 1 hour, or until needed.
Roll out half the dough to line the pie pan. Prick randomly with the point of knife and crimp the edge with the tines of a fork. Save remaining pastry for another pie.
Scatter diced ham on the crust.
Sauté sliced onions in butter until they are soft, but not brown; spread over ham.
In a saucepan, beat four eggs with a good pinch of salt, cayenne and nutmeg. Gradually add hot milk, beating continually with a wire whisk. Continue to beat the mixture over a low fire until the custard begins to thicken. Pour it into the tart shell and bake at 375 degrees F for 30 minutes, or until custard is set and the top is golden.
John F. Kennedy’s Fish Chowder
‘The President has been described as a “Soup, sandwich and fruit man”’, reads an exhibit in the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. And while we don’t know precisely what sandwich and fruit the formidable leader plumped for, we can be pretty confident on the soup. A New England boy through and through, the former president prided himself on the excellence of his hearty seafood chowder, which he was said to serve only to the closest members of his entourage.
Gene Kelly’s Coq au Vin
‘Our first date we ate boiled hot dogs and watched the World Series;’ remembered Gene Kelly’s third wife after the actor’s death in 1996. ‘The next night we had frozen chicken pot pie.’ The simplicity of these dishes, while revealing Kelly’s humbler side, belies the great culinary talents of a man who took to the kitchen with the same determination as he took to the stage. The pinnacle of his cooking career was a precisely rendered twist on the continental Coq au Vin, a recipe that demanded the strictest discipline of its adherents.
Ernest Hemingway’s Hamburgers
The author of The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms was a man of insatiable appetites: whether they be culinary, liquid or carnal. His novels are peppered with adoring descriptions of the provincial delicacies of his continental youth, and his work was characterised by a deep affection for the varied fruits of the land and sea. Following the 1954 airplane crash that left Hemingway and his fourth wife both physically and psychologically traumatised, the Gazzettino Sera newspaper reported that the writer had prescribed himself ‘a powerful cure based on scampi and Valpolicella’. Nothing was quite so restorative to Hemingway, however, as a well-built American hamburger, and one of the greatest gifts the author left to his children after his suicide in 1961 was the secret method behind his legendary beef patties.