Hunter S. Thompson: Huevos Rancheros

Hunter S. Thompson: Huevos Rancheros

Every day begins with breakfast, and every breakfast begins with a profound dilemma: Sweet or savory? For the reliably indecisive (myself included), reading a brunch menu is like watching two heavyweights sweat it out in the ring. Pancakes vs. omelets. French toast vs. hash browns. Doughnuts vs. bacon. Our brains weren’t equipped to handle decisions of this magnitude before noon.

Leave it to Hunter S. Thompson to figure out the two optimal solutions to this problem. One: Never get up before noon. Two: Order everything on the menu.

“Breakfast is a personal ritual that can only be properly observed alone, and in a spirit of genuine excess,” Thompson wrote in The Great Shark Hunt . He goes on to list his preferred meal: “four Bloody Marys, two grapefruits, a pot of coffee, Rangoon crêpes, a half-pound of either sausage, bacon, or corned-beef hash with diced chilies, a Spanish omelette or eggs Benedict, a quart of milk, a chopped lemon for random seasoning, and something like a slice of key lime pie, two margaritas and six lines of the best cocaine for dessert.”

Thompson’s penchant for excess was legendary—but how much of the legend was of his own making? Few question his extravagance where alcohol was concerned; those who partied with him recall downing round after round of his signature Biffs (a mix of Bailey’s Irish Cream and Irish whisky). But according to Thompson’s friends and family, his wild breakfast adventure was largely exaggerated. Instead, he usually ate like the rest of us: one dish at a time.

“He had some very specific ideas about what breakfast should be, and there were maybe four different ones that he liked,” Thompson’s wife Sandy said. “One was a Spanish omelet with bacon. One was mayonnaise and peanut butter on top of toast with bacon on the top. There was some sort of a spinach thing. There was huevos rancheros.” Thompson himself reported a more moderate approach to breakfast elsewhere in The Great Shark Hunt, saying, “I was on the verge of ordering huevos rancheros with a double side of bacon, but … I settled for grapefruit and coffee.” Other friends also remember his grapefruit addiction, but more often it was paired with “six Heinekens and a bottle of gin” instead of the coffee.

Thompson may have misreported his breakfast menu, but he was accurate about his favorite time to eat it: as late as possible. Juan, his son, remembered, “He’d be eating bacon and eggs and reading the paper, and I’d be finishing my dinner or doing my homework before bed. My friends at school thought that was funny.” They might not have thought so if they had run into Thompson enjoying his meal the way he preferred: “in the warmth of a hot sun, and preferably stone naked.”

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D.H. Lawrence: Polenta with Sausage Ragù

D.H. Lawrence - Polenta with Sausage Ragu

One hundred years ago, D.H. Lawrence was awaiting the publication of what would become his most famous (and most controversial) novel. Sons and Lovers celebrates its centennial this May—but in the weeks leading up to its release, Lawrence’s thoughts were elsewhere, in a little house across the Alps: “I want to go back to Italy,” he wrote.

Lawrence made his first trip to Italy while working on Sons and Lovers, and he felt an immediate connection. “I think I shall be happy there, and do some good work,” he said in 1912, just before settling near Lago di Garda, a few miles from Verona. Several months later, his writing was already moving along. “I do my novel well, I’m sure. It’s half done.”

But when taking a break from his desk, Lawrence was at work in the kitchen, which he praised in letters home. “There’s a great open fireplace, then two little things called fornelli – charcoal braziers – and we’ve got lots of lovely copper pans, so bright. Then I light the fornello and we cook. It’s an unending joy.” He found beauty in the smallest act of cooking—he loved his pots so much, he made sketches of them. Everything is just red earthenware, roughly glazed, and one can cook in them beautifully.”

For Lawrence, Italian cuisine meant a chance to experiment with ingredients of all kinds, from the quotidian to the obscure. “We eat spaghetti and risotto and so on all of our own making,” he wrote. “We eat quantities of soup … midday polenta made of maize flour boiled to a stiff porridge that one cuts in slices with a string … queer vegetables – cardi – like thistle stalks, very good – and heaps of fresh sardines.” He frowned upon the tendency of the locals to use too much oil, but had certain indulgences of his own: “Maggi and I grate pounds of cheese,” he admitted. 

If we’re lucky, we discover for ourselves what Lawrence found in Italy: that place that inspires all our creative pursuits, whether it’s at the desk or at the stove. The freedom and adventure he felt there, through, dissipated when he left Italy to go north. “I have suffered from the tightness, the domesticity of Germany. It is our domesticity which leads to our conformity, which chokes us.” Little did he know how non-conformist his new novel would be seen—a little reminder of Italy that lingered there. 

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Polenta with sausage and mushroom ragu recipe

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Ernest Hemingway: Bacon-Wrapped Trout with Corn Cakes

Were you expecting a stiff cocktail? Fresh marlin? Braised wildebeest? Ernest Hemingway has become such a legendary character, it’s hard to think of a recipe that could match his macho reputation. It’s clear that the man loved food; A Moveable Feast is one of the most sincere odes to eating I’ve ever read. But did Hemingway cook?

Whether on a Cuban beach or the African savanna, Hem was a fan of the good life – and that included making good food. “It is all right to talk about roughing it in the woods. But the real woodsman is the man who can be really comfortable in the bush,” he wrote in an essay on camping for the Toronto Star.  As a kid, Hemingway spent many summers hiking through Michigan, and his ideal meal was a freshly caught fish. But most of his fellow outdoorsmen didn’t know their way around a griddle. “The rock that wrecks most camping trips is cooking,” he griped. “The average tyro’s idea of cooking is to fry everything and fry it good and plenty.”

As a solution, he proposed a simple but satisfying meal for any campfire cook. Trout was a favorite for Michigan fishermen, but it can dry out easily. So Hemingway suggested cooking it in layers of bacon, whose fat bastes the fish as it renders. “If there is anything better than that combination the writer has yet to taste it in a lifetime devoted largely and studiously to eating.”

Of course, sometimes the hardest part of cooking isn’t preparing the meal itself – it’s waiting for it to be done. Hemingway saw that coming, too. He recommended whipping up a batch of pancakes to serve before the main course, to satisfy any unhappy campers.

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Jack London: Bacon and Tomato Baked Risotto

On any cookbook shelf, stashed between the glossy covers and the celebrity chefs, there are always a few oddities. Maybe it’s the book you picked up from the giveaway pile at the library. Maybe it’s the gift your friend got you as a tragic joke. But my favorite finds in any collection are the community cookbooks: those spiral bound, DIY collections that bring together the favorite recipes of a group of friends.

Today it’s all about Kickstarter, but community cookbooks used to be a key fundraising tool: Throw in a few bucks for a cause, and you’d get enough recipes to last you the month (plus a tempting window into your neighbors’ kitchens). And one of the first groups to make use of the idea was the women’s suffrage movement. For the suffragettes, creating a cookbook was not only a savvy business move, it also helped counter women’s fears that voting was too radical, too masculine. Donating to a political cause can seem a little daunting. But buying a cookbook? That’s just good taste.

So where does a man’s man like Jack London fit in? Ever the outdoorsman, London was building a sustainable ranch in California when he met the writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a vocal supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. The two shared an interest in socialism, and soon London began to appear at Gilman’s suffrage rallies. When the Equal Franchise Federation of Western Pennsylvania was seeking recipes for The Suffrage Cook Book in 1915, London pitched in with a few of his “especial ‘tried’ favorites.”

London died a year after the cookbook’s publication, three years before women’s suffrage became a reality in 1920. Whether he was genuinely interested in the cause is up for debate – pushing for a ban on alcohol, he noted that when “the ladies get the ballot, they are going to vote for prohibition.” But to readers of the cookbook, London wasn’t a prohibition crusader, or even a big-name author. He was just a fellow activist – who happened to make a mean risotto.

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