Gluttons and Gourmands: Diamond Jim Brady

February 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

Diamond Jim Brady

In An Alphabet for Gourmets, M.F.K. Fisher’s mid-century farrago of essays exploring food and memory in the world around her, each of the 26 chapters is devoted to a different episode or idea, with a tidy alliterative title to boot (such as “A Is for Dining Alone”). As might be expected, my gaze landed on the seventh essay, “G Is for Glutton.” In that essay, Fisher invokes the name of the most celebrated American appetite in the nation’s brief but heavy existence, one Diamond Jim Brady.

Brady is a historical figure is who is familiar to historians of both 19th century robber barons and the turn-of-the-century restaurant world. Despite accumulating a fortune in the railroad business (natch), Brady’s name lives on as the epitome of gilded-age gluttony, linked to fantastic displays of eating. Fisher refers to Brady as “the greatest glutton in American history,” citing accounts of his reach that portray him somewhere in between a Roman demigod come to life and a folk hero. “His stomach was about six times normal size,” she wrote, and he would eat nine portions of sole Marguery in a night as a matter of course.

Another account, probably culled from a more recent biography, tends to cover similar ground in the mythic American imagination. “‘The usual’ evening meal began with an appetizer of two or three dozen oysters, six crabs, and a few servings of green turtle soup. The main course was two whole ducks, six or seven lobsters, a sirloin steak, two servings of terrapin and a variety of vegetables. He topped it off with a platter of pastries and often a two pound box of candy.”

A New York Times profile, however, provides greater scrutiny to the tales surrounding Brady and regards all those accounts, such as dinners where “Brady ate ‘everything that was set before him — to the sixth and seventh helping,’” as amusing but impossible puffery. There’s also some background to the story of Brady’s great encounter with the sole Marguery dish.

 Could it be that Brady was a gastronomical fraud — a garden-variety overeater whose feats have been exaggerated? Should there be an asterisk next to his name in the annals of gluttony?…

It was Rector who propagated the sole Marguery story so treasured by M. F. K. Fisher. In his telling in Morell’s book, Rector first heard of the dish — in which sole fillets are poached in fish stock, garnished with shellfish and served under a rich buttery sauce — after Brady had returned from a trip to Paris. Diamond Jim “spoke of this dish so feelingly to my father that I was immediately taken out of Cornell University, where I was in the third year of law school, and sent to Paris to get the recipe for the fish sauce,” Rector recalled.

O.K., hold it right there. I checked with Cornell University. Neither its development office nor its registrar has any record of a George Rector ever having been enrolled at its law school.

Rector is to be believed, just three weeks after his father’s directive, he had insinuated himself into the kitchen staff of the Café Marguery, then one of Paris’s premier restaurants. “It required exactly two months of working 15 hours a day for me to get the hang of” the dish, Rector said, “and finally, when a jury of seven master chefs voted my sauce perfect, I sent a cable to my father telling him I was leaving on the next boat for America.”

The story only gets cuter and tidier from there. Rector claimed that Brady himself awaited him on the gangplank, shouting, “Have you got the sauce?”— whereupon young George was hustled straight to Rector’s to get to work. “At exactly eight o’clock that same evening,” Rector said, Diamond Jim and his chums sat down to their sole-fest. And then, nine servings later, Brady passed his compliments to the chef by saying, “Even right now, if you poured some of that sauce over a Turkish towel, I believe I could eat all of it!”

Even if upon inspection the truth of Brady’s prodigious appetite looks a little small on the plate, the larger story still holds up and continues to tickle our fancies, unusual for a country whose restaurants until recently were more famed for efficiency and marketing than for epicurean atmosphere. Despite the health problems that plagued him toward the end of his life (caused in no small part due to his overindulgences), his life spawned the imaginative 1935 Preston Sturges vehicle Diamond Jim (the end of the movie finds the despairing Brady character vowing to eat himself to death) as well as a modern-day monument to him in bistro form.

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