“’Fraid of nothing,” Ernest Hemingway’s mother recorded his saying when he was a toddler. Hemingway sought out wars in Italy, Spain, China, and France. He followed the bulls in Spain and hunted lion in Africa. He survived car crack-ups and plane crashes. He drank prodigiously, married four times, won Pulitzer and Nobel prizes, and died, like his father, a suicide. Irving Howe described the Hemingway hero as a man “who is defeated but finds a remnant of dignity in confrontation of defeat.” Howe might have added that
the Hemingway hero, like Hemingway, was always hungry, that while this hero or his creator was locating that “remnant of dignity,” he was also longing for his next meal
“He is to food what D.H. Lawrence is to sex,” another critic noted, about Hemingway. In “Big Two-Hearted River,” Part I, written early in his career, Hemingway dawdles lovingly over preparation of a campfire meal.
Nick was hungry. He did not believe he had ever been hungrier. He opened and emptied a can of pork and beans and a can of spaghetti into the frying pan....
Nick put the frying pan on the grill over the flames. He was hungrier. The beans and spaghetti warmed. Nick stirred them and mixed them together. They began to bubble, making little bubbles that rose with difficulty to the surface. There was a good smell. Nick got out a bottle of tomato catchup and cut four slices of bread. The little bubbles were coming faster now. Nick sat down beside the fire and lifted the frying pan off. He poured about half the contents out into the tin plate. It spread slowly on the plate. Nick knew it was too hot. He poured on some tomato catchup. ... Across the river in the swamp, in the almost dark, he saw a mist rising. He looked at the tent once more. All right. He took a full spoonful from the plate. “Chrise,” Nick said, “Geezus Chrise.”
Hemingway’s mother Grace trained as a singer. She’d hoped to be an opera diva. She cut short her career and married Clarence Hemingway, a general practitioner in her Oak Park, Illinois, hometown, a suburb west of Chicago. The couple had six children; Ernest was second, born July 21, 1899. During his first year, Ernest slept with his mother and “lunched,” she noted in his baby book,“all through the night.”
Grace’s mother discouraged her learning to cook. “There is no use any woman getting into the kitchen if she can help it,” she’d said. Grace gave voice lessons and used her earnings to pay household help. She rarely prepared meals and had in her repertoire only meat loaf, chocolate cake, Devonshire cream, fruit cake, and an English tea cake.
Dr. Hemingway was an accomplished cook, or, as Hemingway biographer Carlos Barker puts it, “was obliged to do most of the cooking.” During house calls he frequently telephoned his home to ask a maid or child to take a gooseberry pie or sheet of peach turnovers from the oven. He canned the fruits and vegetables he grew at home in Oak Park and at the family’s Michigan summer home. He paid the children to pick wild berries, from which he made jams and jellies. He did the marketing and when he didn’t cook, gave directions to the cook.
Ernest’s older sister Marcelline Hemingway Sanford in At the Hemingways wrote that Dr. Hemingway took an interest, unusual for that time, in what they ate. “Years before the word vitamins came into use, my father had theories about food. While we were still nursing babies he fed us fresh vegetables, orange pieces and juice, cut up tomatoes, and shredded meat in gravy. Mother wrote down in my baby book how annoyed she was that my father brought the new baby to her to nurse ‘with onion on his breath.’”
That young Ernest was stubborn and difficult is a commonplace of his siblings’ memories. In April 1951, Hemingway wrote from his home in Cuba to his publisher Charles Scribner, “When I was a small kid I would only eat meat and fish. They couldn’t get me to eat vegetables no matter how much they whipped me.”
Christmas in Oak Park was a major event. Early in October, Dr. Hemingway began curing beef in the fruit cellar. Every day he went to the cellar and rubbed salt and saltpeter on the meat. In December, he’d make “hockies,” boiled, spiced pork hocks that he’d set in the back yard in bowls to cure and freeze. Then, just before Christmas Eve he would bake, then freeze in the back yard, mince pies. On Christmas Eve, Dr. Hemingway would open his preserved fruits and vegetables, serve hockies, pickles, mince pies, and cut the oven- roasted beef so thin the slices curled. (Peter Griffin: Along with Youth: Hemingway, The Early Years )
All six children were taught to cook out-of-doors. Carlos Baker writes that they learned “how to build fires and cook in the open, how to dress fish and fowl for the frying pan or oven.” Baker adds that Hemingway “shared his father’s plea- sure in good eating, especially of fish and game. Even his liking for onions dated back to the time when his father had pointed out that wild onions, stripped clean of clinging loam, made an excellent filling for sandwiches.” Hemingway’s favorite sandwich was peanut butter with a thick onion slice.
When the family moved each June from Oak Park to their upper Michigan summer place, Dr. Hemingway ordered provisions sent by freight — barrels of gingersnaps, flour, hams, and rashers of bacon.
Hemingway graduated from high school in 1917. He served as a cub reporter for the
Kansas City Star until early 1918, when he joined the American Field Services’ Ambulance Corps, which sent him to Italy, where he was wounded. Hospitalized in Italy, he adjusted to hospital tedium by anticipating meals, like the breakfast of Italian sausage, fried eggs and potatoes, bitter Italian coffee, and hard rolls. “Ernest,” writes Peter Griffin,“ate his breakfast slowly and, as Dr. Hemingway had always encouraged him to do, chewed his food carefully and well.”