Ducal diet

Food

If only Duke Ellington (1899-1974) were alive to celebrate his 100th birthday on 29 April. What a party it would be. Music may have been Ellington's mistress, as he declared in the title of his autobiography, but food was his other lifelong passion. "Duke" wasn't his only sobriquet. He was called "Dumplin" and "Puddin" by others and ate with all the talent and flair that characterised his compositions and piano playing. A prolific diner, he always sought out the best, even with the simplest dishes.

"If you never tasted the toast at the King Edward Hotel in Toronto when M Boucheau was chef de cuisine . . . you never tasted the greatest. It was one of the most astonishing and refreshing delights to discover that a piece of toast, apparently so plain, could yet be so exquisitely tasty." You can tell from this that Duke was a natural gourmet and not a putter-on of false airs and graces. He got a kick out of eating cordon bleu in Paris but was equally happy with "good homemade apple pie" or fresh fish with a squeeze of lime juice.

Duke was the ultimate believer in "when in Rome, eat as the Romans do". Wherever in the world he took his orchestra, he found specialities that he liked. He loved the blini and caviar of Russia. In Glasgow, he ate haggis. In England, he acquired a taste for tea and scones and mutton and also sought out Poppets, those little round sweets in boxes, while in New Orleans he got through pails of gumbo file. "And oh, my, the smorgasbord in Sweden!"

With all this travelling, he got very fixed ideas - fetishes, almost - about which were the best kitchens for particular dishes. For chow mein with pigeon's blood, it had to be Johnny Cann's Cathay House in San Francisco. The best cinnamon rolls were located in Chicago and the best crepes Suzette on the Ile-de-France - "It took a dozen at a time to satisfy me". Meanwhile, "in Toronto, I get duck orange, and the best fried chicken in the world is in Louisville, Kentucky. I get myself a half-dozen chickens and a gallon jar of potato salad." He once ate 32 hot dogs at Mrs Wagner's diner in Orchard Beach, Maine.

It might seem surprising, therefore, that Ellington cut such a trim figure. But he threw himself into dieting just as he threw himself into eating. When his doctor told him to lose weight in 1955, he adopted a regime of "steak (any amount), grapefruit and black coffee with a slice of lemon first squeezed and then dropped into it". He kept this up for three months until one day his trousers fell down on stage. Then it was back to fried chicken and mammoth doggy bags.

The kind of cuisine Duke returned to more than any other was the soul food of his Washington childhood. His father had been a caterer and kept the family supplied with terrapin and prime steaks. His mother, whom he adored, was "a pure artist". She rustled up macaroni and cheese, collard greens, leg of lamb - "and with it the world's greatest cornbread". If nothing else, there should be cornbread at Duke's centenary shindig.


Cornbread
Mix and sift together 3/4 cup cornmeal, 1 cup flour, 1/3 cup sugar, 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda and 2 tsp cream of tartar. Add 1 cup yoghurt mixed with 1/4 cup whole milk, 1 egg and 2 tbsp melted fat. Bake in a square tin (8") at 200oC for 20 minutes. Serve with stew, beans and pipin' hot jazz. (One cup = 250ml.)

This article first appeared in the 26 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The great Balkan lie