WE ALL KNOW that the Breakfast of Champions idea is silly. Eating the same food as an athlete or movie star isn't going to make us develop the same muscles or features. And the favorite recipes of presidential candidates' wives never seem to keep the implied promise of building or attracting presidential material.
So why am I planning to eat cold pigeon pie every day for the rest of my life, just as soon as I can catch the pigeons? Because it says in Jane Grigson's Food With the Famous that's what Jane Austen ate. Perhaps it will help. It's worth taking the chance. In the end, the kind of breakfast you are willing to eat just depends on what kind of champion you aspire to be.
The best all-round diet is probably okra soup, stuffed turkey legs, corn bread, vanilla ice cream and coffee strained through flannel; these were all ingredients that went into the making of Thomas Jefferson.
Alexandre Dumas pere was famous for his cabbage soup, among other rich concoctions, culinary and literary; and Monet was the host who provided the asparagus that Manet painted.
Marcel Proust has told us at some length how he felt about madeleines and lime tea, but Grigson has added a warning to store the lime blossoms in plastic bags after drying them on newspapers. She also points out that the entire time he was writing Remembrance of Things Past "he barely ate at all, subsisting on milk in the main." So much for the Breakfast of Champions theory.
However, the book needn't be used as a recipe for success. The Zola chapter contains a proven recipe for failure: the 14-course menu of the catered party that Nana gave to launch herself as a hostess. It was an unqualified disaster. This book provides the instructions for repeating it.
Literature, politics, social reform, religion -- Grigson, as a true sensualist, explains them all in terms of appetite. Others may look for the source of all human behavior in the bedroom -- she finds it as the dinner table.
Balanced against Jefferson's failure to oppose slavery passionately, she offers the fact that he fed his slaves well. Grigson forgives his not supporting women's rights because "running a big house like Monticello in those days was business career enough for any woman." She positively applauds his having broken the law, bribing and smuggling to obtain Italian rice, the export of which was forbidden on penalty of death.
But one can forgive Grigson herself for treating heavy matters lightly, because that is part of being a successful hostess. The book is organized like a good dinner party, with bits of witty repartee, light references to the issues of the day, interesting observations on everyone's manners, and, above all, fascinating food.
The people she assembles are there not only as social lions, but for their ability to contribute to the party. (Also, like any hostess, she has to deal with what is available; not everyone she might have wanted left recipes.) John Evelyn is introduced as the champion of 17th-century salad and vegetable gardening and a supporter of the ice house and the pressure cooker.
Surely Jane Austin, though a bigger celebrity, would have been pleased to have him as a dinner partner. And no doubt she would have been delighted to have the opportunity to explain why Mr. Bingley, in Pride and Prejudice, wouldn't send round cards until "Nicholls has made white soup enough."