Real Brain Food: What Geniuses Actually Eat, Part 1

What Geniuses Actually Eat, Part 1

It's common knowledge that certain foods foster brain development, health, and memory. Fish almost always makes the list, as do any foods that are loaded with antioxidants like blueberries, nuts, whole grains, green tea, and dark chocolate. Spices like turmeric are being studied for their ability to prevent Alzheimer's, among other things.

Italian artist Sara Asnaghi went and literally made brains out of food. Image by Sara Asnaghi/Behance

Current research indicates that foods high in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids along with the antioxidants in the foodstuffs listed above prevent inflammation, which leads to cellular breakdown and disease in the body and brain. Meanwhile, other research indicates that diets high in carbohydrates can contribute to the development of Alzheimer's.

Okay, that's all well and good for us normals. But what do actual, bonafide geniuses munch on? So many rules that work for the majority don't work for groundbreaking writers, scientists, inventors, artists, and musicians. What do (and did) they eat and drink to keep those big brains going?

Physicists Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard at work. What did they nosh on to keep their brains going? Image via University of Melbourne

FYI, we're using the term "geniuses" here to include people who are or were innovators in the arts, sciences, and social movements. In other words, men and women whose work expanded our current understanding of the world or even changed our notions of how things could be done.

Unless otherwise noted, information herein comes from the delightful book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work conceived and edited by Mason Currey.

Coffee: A Staple of the Creative Life, Apparently

It probably comes as no surprise that many artists and writers tend to rely on nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol to start and end the day. Composer nonpareil Ludwig von Beethoven began every day with a cup of coffee that had exactly sixty beans per cup, which he counted.

Other composers clearly considered coffee to be incredibly important. J.S. Bach actually wrote a small comic opera about caffeine addiction, nicknamed the Coffee Cantata (BWV 211). It contains some killer lines like, "If I can't drink / my bowl of coffee three times daily / then in my torment I will shrivel up / like a piece of roast goat."

Meanwhile, Marcel Proust, who wrote the literary masterpiece In Search of Lost Time started the day with two strong cups of black coffee and boiled milk, which he supplemented with caffeine tablets. He was also fond of baked goods, eating at least one croissant with a second always kept in reserve. Other than that, his eating habits were erratic, to say the least.

Many days, that was all he ate. Other times, he was known to go to restaurants and enjoy quite the feast. Unsurprisingly, he suffered from poor health for most of his life and died at the age of 50. His maid, Celeste Albaret, reports that for the last month of his life, he drank only cold beer.

It probably comes as no surprise that a lot of artists and writers are enthusiastic boozehounds, to put it mildly. The really good ones seem to gravitate toward it: F. Scott Fitzgerald was an infamous alcoholic who grew increasingly dependent on gin later on in life.

Patricia Highsmith, author of taut psychological thrillers including The Talented Mr. Ripley, began the day with cigarettes, coffee, a doughnut, and a saucer of sugar. Later on, she became a hardened drinker and started her day with vodka instead. A chain smoker, she "only ate American bacon, fried eggs, and cereal" at odd times of the day.

Iconic painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec drank constantly, slept very little, and made infamously strong cocktails with absinthe. He also died at age 36.

"At the Cafe La Mie" by Toulouse-Lautrec, undoubtedly inspired by his own lifestyle, oui? Image via Wikimedia Commons

Another French writer, Honore de Balzac, reputedly consumed up to 50 cups of coffee per day. Apparently it really paid off: his magnum opus is a series of books and plays called La Comédie Humaine that is almost 100 volumes. His contemporary, Victor Hugo, who wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables, also started the day with coffee—and two raw eggs.

A Lot of Artists Eat Eggs for Breakfast

In fact, an egg-based breakfast turns out to be a common factor among many geniuses and high-achiever types.

Dancer/choreographer Twyla Tharp starts the day with three boiled egg whites and coffee. Playwright Samuel Beckett ate scrambled eggs. Leo Tolstoy favored two eggs, hard-boiled. Painter Georgia O'Keefe favored a breakfast bowl of chili with garlic oil and soft-boiled or scrambled eggs. Composer Richard Strauss started the day with three eggs.

Twyla Tharp at work with American Ballet Theater dancers. Image by Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

It should be noted that eggs are rich in choline, which is considered critical for brain development, especially in fetuses.

Geniuses Eat Breakfast, Period

In fact, a lot of the genius crowd is quite fond of breakfast (guess it really is the most important meal of the day), but they're not all egg-eaters.

Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz breakfasted on pancakes pretty much every day. Composer George Gershwin had eggs, toast, coffee, and OJ in the morning. Composer Gustav Mahler started the day with coffee, "diet bread," milk, butter, and jam. Mark Twain was a hearty breakfast eater, although records don't show what he ate. Philosopher Thomas Hobbes started the day with bread and butter and writer James Joyce went that route, too: he had coffee and rolls brought to him in bed.

Creative Types Like the Sweet Stuff

Author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and The Scarlet Letter, liked to take an evening snack of a "thick bowl of chocolate" with bread crumbled into it. Keep in mind this was the 19th century—tastes were different then.

Lots of other folks like sugar, too. Groundbreaking filmmaker David Lynch, the auteur behind Twin Peaks (whose main character is a coffee fiend), Eraserhead, and Blue Velvet, had a very set habit for seven years: he ate at Bob's Big Boy, a local Southern California restaurant chain, after the lunch rush. He ordered a chocolate shake and 4 to 7 cups of coffee with lots of sugar. He credits the sugar as the impetus behind many of his ideas.

David Lynch even has his own brand of coffee now. He drinks 7 cups of it daily. Image by David Lynch/Huffington Post

Swedish filmmaker genius-type Ingmar Bergman also had strange eating habits based around sugar, too. According to actress Bibi Andersson, he ate the same lunch everyday: a fatty kind of whipped sour milk and very sweet strawberry jam, both eaten together with cornflakes.

Acclaimed writer and MacArthur genius grant winner David Foster Wallace was a big consumer of baked goods, sugary treats, and junk food in general. His biographer D.T. Max notes that Wallace tried to break his habit of eating blondies and other pastries by switching to sugar-free jams. David Lipsky, who wrote about his travels with Wallace, chronicles his diet Pepsi and McDonald's habits. Sadly, Wallace hanged himself at age 46, due to what his family considers a poor reaction to antidepressants (one of which he took, Nardil, had a long list of food-related interactions).

And we're not done yet. There is so much to talk about here that I decided to split this up into two parts, so head on over to Real Brain Food, Part 2 to continue reading.

Cover image via Artist Sara Asnaghi/Behance

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