Genius and food have a lot in common. Both nurture, inspire and occasionally intimidate. Some appeal to almost everyone instantly. Others are acquired tastes. So perhaps it’s not surprising that, scanning history’s greatest minds, we find many were inspired by certain food or drink, repulsed by others —or had some very peculiar dining habits.
Thomas Edison used soup as an interviewing tool. He had prospective job applicants taste while he observed them carefully. Those who seasoned the soup — with pepper, for instance — before tasting it were rejected outright. They had too many assumptions. Then there was the French writer Honore de Balzac, who took coffee addiction to a new level. He would work through the night, downing 50 cups of high-octane espresso. “This coffee falls into your stomach, and straight away there is a general commotion,” he wrote in an essay titled “The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee,” published in a French magazine in the 1830s. “Ideas begin to move like battalions of the Grand Army of the battlefield, and the battle takes place.” In the end, it was a battle Balzac would lose. He died at age 51. The cause of death? Caffeine poisoning.
Many geniuses were picky eaters. The Greek mathematician Pythagoras hated beans. He supposedly forbade his followers from eating them, or even touching them. His dislike of legumes may have led to his death. According to legend, when attackers ambushed him, he refused to escape by running through a bean field.
Many geniuses were vegetarians, including Leonardo da Vinci, Gandhi, George Bernard Shaw and the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician Norbert Wiener. Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein may or may not have been vegetarians. (The record is ambiguous.)
Quite a few geniuses had quirky eating habits. Steve Jobs had some funny ideas about food, as he did about so many things. According to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, the Silicon Valley whiz kid subsisted mainly on dates, almonds — and lots of carrots. He supposedly ate so many carrots that “friends remember him, at times, having a sunset-orange hue,” writes Isaacson. Later, Jobs embarked on weeklong fasts, going about it “in my usual nutso way,” he told Isaacson. “After a week you start to feel fantastic. You get a ton of vitality from not having to digest all this food.”
Jobs wasn’t alone in believing that the secret to a creative mind is a sparse diet. Aristophanes, the ancient Greek satirist, attributed the keen Athenian intellect to their low-calorie diet. Michelangelo was indifferent to food and ate “more out of necessity than pleasure,” according to his apprentice and biographer Ascanio Condivi. While working on The Last Judgment, he wouldn’t eat until the evening, when he was done painting for the day.
On the other end of the spectrum was Ernest Hemingway, who memorialized his gluttonous Paris years in his (posthumously published) memoir, A Movable Feast.
Then there was Charles Darwin. He not only studied exotic animals, he also ate them. While studying at Cambridge University, he headed the Glutton Club, whose members met weekly to eat “strange flesh,” including owls, hawks and bittern. Later, aboard the Beagle, he sampled armadillos (which “taste & look like duck”), iguanas and giant tortoises.
Clearly, food need not be appealing in order to inspire. Friedrich Schiller, the poet and philosopher, always kept a carton of rotten apples under his desk when he wrote. He said the odor reminded him of the countryside where he grew up.
It might not be food and drink, per se, that foster creativity but, rather, the conviviality and intellectual cross-fertilization that a good meal engenders. Take ancient Athens, one of the earliest — and greatest — “genius clusters” the world has seen. A centerpiece of city life was the symposia, literally “drinking together.” Participants spent hours downing diluted wine and discussing philosophy, poetry or the latest gossip. In 18th century Edinburgh, center of The Scottish Enlightenment, it was an establishment called the Oyster Club that served as intellectual blender. At the time, oysters were considered egalitarian grub, food of the people. The club’s founders — economist Adam Smith and philosopher David Hume — consumed bushels of oysters and cases of claret, while they and the other (all male) members conversed about anything and everything.
Perhaps the greatest example of dining establishment as creativity engine was the Viennese coffeehouse. During the city’s golden age, circa 1900, the coffeehouse was “a sort of democratic club, and anyone could join it for the price of a cheap cup of coffee,” the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig recalls in his wonderful memoir, The World of Yesterday. What exactly did that admission price get you? For starters, a warm room at a time when housing — especially heated housing — was in short supply. It also got you information. Lots of it. The Viennese coffeehouse was the Internet of its day. They supplied the day’s newspapers, carefully mounted on long wooden poles. This is where you went to find out what was happening around the corner, or halfway around the world.
Everyone had a favorite coffeehouse. For Freud, it was the Café Landtmann, a cozy place a short walk from his home-office. (The café is still there today, though it’s considerably more upmarket than during Freud’s day.) Cafégoers had their Stammtisch, their usual seat. For Freud, it was in a corner facing outward. There, he could sit, undisturbed, sipping his einen kleinen Braunen (short black coffee) and observing the creative milieu unfolding all around him.
Now, you may be asking, where are all the women on this illustrious list? Genius is a social verdict — and up until very recently, the jury has consisted almost entirely of white men. For the most part, history’s female geniuses – and their dining peculiarities — have been swept under the table, like so many crumbs. There are notable exceptions, of course: Marie Curie, twice a Nobel laureate, who, as a broke student in Paris, survived for a while on bread and butter. There is Virginia Woolf, who supposedly demanded perfect table manners from her guests and chided them if they fell short.
And Mozart’s older sister, known as Nannerl, was a prodigy in her own right, but, submitting to the era’s expectations for women, dropped her musical career when she married. Today, Wolfgang is the toast of classical music. Nannerl is remembered on a bottle of Austrian Schnapps.
Eric Weiner is the author, most recently, of The New York Times best-seller The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places, from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley.