Brain Pickings

Duke Ellington’s Diet

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What the celebrated composer’s relationship with food reveals about the inner conflicts we share.

This is a culture where our relationship with food, though sometimes a canvas for creativity, has mutated from a source of sustenance to a grand arena for our moral struggles with willpower, a tyranny of habits we seek to rewire, a currency of status in the world’s hierarchy of haves and have-nots. At its most tragic, it can rip the psyche apart under the conflicting, unrelenting impulses for indulgence and control. While for most of us, these daily dramas play out in private, for public figures they offer source material for that sad excuse for journalism we find at the newsstand and the supermarket checkout aisle. And yet something about it — about those shared demons of our ambivalent relationship with food as a metaphor and voodoo doll for our inner contradictions and oscillations between self-loathing and self-pleasuring, between quenching and control — holds immutable allure for even those furthest removed from tabloid culture.

Perhaps it is the confluence of these curious cultural phenomena that makes for one of the most interesting parts of Terry Teachout’s fantastic new biography, Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (public library) — Ellington’s relationship with food. In many ways, it presents an amplified version of the inner struggles we face daily — amplified to the point of caricature, which is what makes it both so powerful and so unsettling, in the same way we tend to be uneasy around or profoundly dislike those who exhibit exaggerated versions of our own worst traits.

Ellington, who was exceedingly concerned with how he looked on stage, went to great lengths to reconcile and conceal his conflicted appetites for pleasure and for appearance. He wore show-stopping ensembles when he performed — but with a twist:

Beneath it all he wore a corset, a useful tool for a performer whose appetite for food was as gargantuan as his appetite for sex. One of Ellington’s nicknames was “Dumpy,” and Tricky Sam Nanton paid awestruck tribute to his capacity: “He’s a genius, all right, but Jesus, how he eats!” Some of his best-remembered quirks had to do with food, such as his practice of wrapping up a leftover chop in a handkerchief or napkin, then tucking it in one of his pockets after a meal. It was a habit he had acquired in his early days, when food, like money, was harder to come by. “After a while, you eat in self-defense,” he told Whitney Balliett. “You get so you hoard little pieces of food against the time when there isn’t going to be any.”

Fashion plate: Duke Ellington in his dressing room at New York’s Paramount Theatre, photographed in May 1946 by William Gottlieb. In the thirties, he traveled with five trunks of clothes plus a separate trunk for his shoes. Ellington’s hair, as always, has been meticulously straightened, a look that he never abandoned, even after it became unfashionable among younger blacks

But his struggles with food cut deeper than a mere quirk. Teachout cites one journalist’s account of how Ellington’s notorious compulsion for controlling his image backfired in the most tragicomic of ways in his diet:

Duke, who is always worrying about keeping his weight down, may announce that he intends to have nothing but Shredded Wheat and black tea. . . . Duke’s resolution about not overeating frequently collapses at this point. When it does, he orders a steak, and after finishing it he engages in another moral struggle for about five minutes. Then he really begins to eat. He has another steak, smothered in onions, a double portion of fried potatoes, a salad, a bowl of sliced tomatoes, a giant lobster and melted butter, coffee, and an Ellington dessert — perhaps a combination of pie, cake, ice cream, custard, pastry, jello, fruit, and cheese. His appetite really whetted, he may order ham and eggs, a half-dozen pancakes, waffles and syrup, and some hot biscuits. Then, determined to get back on his diet, he will finish, as he began, with Shredded Wheat and black tea.

For a closer look at Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, dive into the story of how Ellington engineered his own image.

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