Rossini’s Second Act as a Foodie
Gioachino Rossini, photographed by Etienne Carjat at the age of 73 in 1865
Born on Leap Day (February 29th) in 1792, Gioachino Rossini was an extraordinarily prolific composer of operas. By the time he was 37, he had written 39 operas including the beloved Barber of Seville, La donna del Lago, and William Tell. But after the premiere of William Tell, he decided that the rest of his life would be better spent lounging around at a grand villa in Paris and devoting himself to his other passion—food. Rossini was well known among local chefs as a bon vivant and a gourmet, and had many decadent dishes named after him. Among them are Tournedos Rossini; Chicken alla Rossini; Filet of Sole alla Rossini; and Eggs Rossini. Tournedos Rossini was created for the composer by celebrated chef Casimir Moissons, and consists of a filet mignon sitting atop a crouton, piled high with foie gras and truffles, then doused in a decadent Madeira glaze. In addition to Moissons, Rossini befriended many other leading chefs of the day, maintaining a unique correspondence with Antonin Carême, known for his towering sugar sculptures and his extensive writings on the foundations of haute cuisine. Carême would send him gifts of pâté, and Rossini would thank him with a signed manuscript. How’s that for bartering? His favorite food was supposedly a turkey stuffed with truffles. The moral of the story? Truffles go with everything!
Mozart’s Killer Favorite Food
Mozart in a portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce
What killed Mozart at just 35? A recent theory points the finger at one of his favorite foods—pork cutlets.
According to Dr. Jan Hirschmann, Professor of Medicine at the University of Washington, Mozart’s death could have been due to trichinosis, a disease caused by consuming undercooked meat infested with the larvae of the trichinella parasite.
Hirschmann cited Mozart’s correspondence as a potential clue. 44 days prior to his illness, Mozart wrote his wife Constanza: “What do I smell? . . . Pork cutlets! Che Gusto [What a delicious taste]. I eat to your health.” The incubation period for trichinosis can be as long as 50 days, and the symptoms of trichinosis match up with accounts of Mozart’s symptoms of fever, rash, limb pain, and swelling.
Mozart passed away 15 days after he became ill. At the time, doctors diagnosed it vaguely as “severe military fever.” Theories seeking to explain Mozart’s untimely death have abounded, including Cosima’s (unsubstantiated) belief that he was poisoned by Salieri or another of his rivals. As a commoner, Mozart was interred in a common grave that was dug up every 10 years and reused, and his remains were scattered. Without any physical evidence, the circumstances of his death remain a mystery.
Hildegard’s Healing Cookies of Joy
Illumination from Hildegard’s Scivias, showing her receiving a divine revelation
It turns out that in addition to being a brilliant composer, a Benedictine abbess, and a mystic, Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) somehow found time to develop quasi-medicinal recipes. In her Physica and Causes and Cures, Hildegard lists a variety of herbal concoctions and recipes for various ailments. Weak heart? Take a teaspoon of boiled parsley, honey, and wine. Upset stomach? Try wine mixed with powdered ginger, galingale (a cousin of ginger), and zedoary (another cousin of ginger). Depressed? Hildegard would have prescribed her “cookies of joy,” to “calm all bitterness of the heart and mind, open your heart and impaired senses, and make your mind cheerful.” They mercifully do not contain wine or parsley, made instead with a pleasant-sounding blend of spelt flour, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves. At the abbey Hildegard founded in 1165, in Eibingen, Germany, nuns still make her cookies and other herbal preparations. Get the recipe for her cookies of joy here.
Chopin’s Nostalgia for Polish Food
Zrazy, a beef roulade stuffed with various fillings (via Wikimedia Commons)
In 1831, Frédéric Chopin joined thousands of other émigrés who left Poland after the November Uprising of 1830–1831, in which Polish nationalists unsuccessfully rose up against Russian rule. As many as 50,000 people fled the country, particularly among the cultural and political elite, creating a large ex-pat community in France. Chopin arrived in Paris at 21, never to return to his native Poland. He was frequently homesick, especially for Polish food.
One of his favorite dishes was Zrazy: slivers of beef stuffed with various fillings, including vegetables, mushrooms, eggs, and potato. On a visit to Vienna, Chopin was invited to dine at the villa of Dr. Johann Malfatti, the wealthy personal physician of the Archduke and Archduchess of Austria. Malfatti was known for his hospitality, especially providing the comforts of home to traveling artists. Chopin wrote to his family: “Szaniasio ate more zrazy and cabbage, I swear, than any Carmelite. You must know that this rare man, Dr. Malfatti, is so considerate of everyone. If we come to dine with him, he searches out Polish food for us!”
Satie’s Bizarre Diet
Satie doodles in a letter to Jean Cocteau, 1917. “Mr. Sadi [sic] in his house. He’s thinking.”
Known for his eccentricities, Erik Satie (1866–1925) went through a phase in which he surrounded himself with the color white—white furniture, white clothing, and even white foods. He believed controlling his environment would enhance his creativity. In Memoirs of an Amnesiac (1912), Satie wrote of his bizarre eating habits: “My only nourishment consists of food that is white: eggs, sugar, shredded bones, the fat of dead animals, veal, salt, coconuts, chicken cooked in white water, moldy fruit, rice, turnips, sausages in camphor, pastry, cheese (white varieties), cotton salad, and certain kinds of fish (without their skin). I boil my wine and drink it cold mixed with the juice of the Fuchsia. I have a good appetite, but never talk when eating for fear of strangling myself.”
All of this must be taken with a grain of salt, of course, as Satie was quite the joker. He penned works with fanciful titles (Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear), wrote performance directions that bordered on the impossible (such as the 840 repetitions of Vexations), or gave his pieces formal-sounding titles that were actually nonsense words (Gnossiennes). Satie’s style of stripped-down forms and his sardonic wit influenced an entire generation of French composers, and his works also paved the way for what we now call minimalism. So…maybe the weird diet did help after all!