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Jan 2, 2009

Diamond Jim Brady Revisited

Diamond Jim BradyDiamond Jim Brady

One of the most interesting culinary articles I've read in ages appeared in the New York Times on December 30. Whether True or False--A Real Stretch, written by David Kamp, questions the culinary legend that's been built around Diamond Jim Brady.

A glittering figure of the Gilded Age, Brady was born poor but had made a fortune by his mid-20s. Then he just kept on making more money (at one point he was worth around $12 million in early 20th century dollars). Friendly, fun-loving, and generous, he gave away a good deal of money to needy people and worthy causes. He also spent massively on pleasures for himself: diamond cufflnks and shirt studs, the racetrack, wining and dining, showgirls. For many years he was involved with one of the reigning actresses and beauties of the day, Lillian Russell.

Lillian Russell, about 1905Lillian Rusell

Diamond Jim is known most of all for his enormous appetite. I've never come across his name in a book without an accompanying list of one of his typical breakfasts (a dozen eggs, a dozen pancakes, a few chops, a giant beefsteak, a platter of fried potatoes, etc.) or dinners (a huge tureen of turtle soup, followed by half a dozen lobsters, two whole ducks, a giant steak, three dozen oysters, a whole pie, etc.). This was all supplemented with mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks, as well as midnight suppers.

I've never known what to make of Brady. It didn't seem humanly possible that anyone could eat so much at a single setting. It didn't seem possible to do it even once in a lifetime, let alone a few times a day--day after day, year after year. Most people wrote of Brady admiringly, as if he were a super-gourmet, but I couldn't help but think he was just a glutton.

Though I was skeptical, it never occurred to me that these tales about Diamond Jim might be false. I'm in awfully good company, though. For a century, everyone from serious historians to chatty cookbook authors have treated Brady's appetites as a fact, passing along the same stories. No less a luminary than M. F. K. Fisher wrote admiringly about his eating habits in her classic Alphabet for Gourmets.

Food historian David Kamp was skeptical too, but he pursued his skepticism. In the NYT article he traces the stories about Diamond Jim back to their original (probably lying) source and ends up putting a giant crack in the myth. We may never know for sure, but it does appear that Brady--while no lightweight at the table--wasn't quite the gobbler we've been told. If he had been, according to a modern-day surgeon interviewed by Kamp, he "would have exploded."

The whole story, including Kamp's path to unraveling the myth, is a great read. Check it out.

Related Books:

Diamond Jim Brady: Prince of the Gilded Age
Lillian Russell: A Biography of "America's Beauty"
An Alphabet for Gourmets by MFK Fisher
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