By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2005 Gourmet Magazine
Elvis was huge. Everything about him was colossal, not only his immeasurable effect on music but the way he lived his life. He was a man with mighty appetites. Cadillacs, girlfriends, Dilaudid: He could never get enough. That’s the way he was about the things he liked to eat, too. The legend of the skinny kid from Tupelo who became the 250-pound omnivore of Graceland is filled with awesome tales about his ability to pack away ungodly amounts of bacon, honeydew melons, Spanish omelets, and peanut-and-chocolate-topped ice cream cones. When he was young and billed as “The Nation’s Only Atomic Powered Singer,” he burned calories by the thousand every night. But as his act and his metabolism slowed, Elvis got fat, and he spent most of his adult life alternately feasting and dieting.
In 1992, when the U.S. Postal Service held a national vote to decide whether a forthcoming stamp should portray the lean teen idol or the hefty middle-aged man, skinny Elvis won (and the 29-center became the top-selling commemorative stamp of all time—yet another superlative). Still, it is our belief that the big guy’s weight issue is one reason fans feel close to him. He aged like so many men do, and no matter how successful he became, he never stopped loving biscuits and gravy. From his suite atop the Las Vegas Hilton, where caviar could have been his for the asking, he sent out for bags of well-done hamburgers. At home, when he grew hungry in the middle of the night, he sat at the kitchen table dipping hunks of corn bread into buttermilk long enough for each piece to become what he called a “soak”—a big, soft mouthful of earthy tenderness.
Given his legendary caloric intake, it’s no surprise that his memory has been honored by cookbooks. Our library of Elvisiana includes three spiral-bound volumes produced by fans as charitable fundraisers: Elvis in Canada Fan Club Cookbook, The Wonder of You Elvis Fans Cookbook Volume II, and Elvis Presley Burning Love Fan Club CookBook. These contain recipes that have little to do with Elvis beyond the occasional evocative title: Double Trouble Peanut Butter Cookies, Love Me Tender Scotch Shortbread, Ain’t Nothing but Hound Dogs. Fit for a King looks self-published (spiral binding), but its provenance is mainstream (Rutledge Hill Press), and although the recipes are typically southern, they aren’t Elvis-specific. The best parts of the book are the dozens of short sidebars that really do tell how Elvis ate: “Elvis was just wild about his mother’s coconut cake.” “He drank a lot of milk, water, and soda pop. On certain occasions, he preferred chocolate milk.” “Like many young girls her age, Priscilla Beaulieu was dying to meet Elvis Presley. Her first ‘date’ with Elvis was while he was stationed in Germany. She went to his house for a home-cooked southern supper prepared by Elvis’s grandmother Minnie Presley.”
Three years after Elvis’s death, his uncle Vester Presley and his maid, Nancy Rooks, wrote The Presley Family Cookbook, which boasts that it features “recipe favorites of the Presley family.” However, none of them have explanatory headnotes, and other than the peanut butter and banana sandwich, none are really part of Elvis lore.
The book that tells the most about Elvis’s food life, Elvis The Way I Knew Him, contains only three recipes (vegetable soup, corn bread, macaroni salad), but we believe the author, Mary Jenkins, when she writes that they were some of Elvis’s favorites, because Mary Jenkins was his cook. She really knew Elvis as well as his family did, and she informs us that Priscilla loved tuna salad, but that the only time she made it was when Elvis was away or asleep. He hated the smell of any kind of fish. She says that one of his favorite meals was roast beef, duck and dressing with string beans, creamed potatoes, mixed vegetables, and biscuits; and she observes that Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’s manager, liked his eggs poached but yolkless. She reveals that she talked to Elvis in baby talk, which he relished, and that after he and Priscilla broke up, she used to tuck him in at night.
In one telling reminiscence, Jenkins recalls the time Elvis was in the hospital with colon problems. He phoned her at Graceland and said, “I want you to fix me some kraut and weiner sandwiches.” She protested, reminding him that he was on a strict diet, but he insisted—“Mary, I got to have some of those sandwiches”—and went on to tell her exactly how he liked them: “Boil the kraut and weiners together. Take the wieners out, put them on a hot dog bun, and pile the kraut on top. Then fill them full of mustard. Bring them by to me this afternoon, and tell the guard at my door that you are bringing Linda [Thompson, his girlfriend] some clothes.” Like so many in the Elvis entourage, Jenkins could not say no, and for several days thereafter, she snuck kraut and weiner sandwiches to his hospital room. This first-person account is the only instance we know of Elvis spelling out a recipe.