What Houdini ate: An Austin archive reveals foodie facts about the magician

Eric Colleary, curator of the theater and performing arts collection at the Ransom Center, has a side interest: The history of foodways, how eating habits and culinary practices change through the eras.

Colleary maintains a blog, The American Table, in which he documents his experiences trying historic recipes for dishes such as Election Cake  and delves into topics such as the story of butchering in America.

“Food hits all the senses,” says Colleary. “Tasting foods made from historic recipes gives you a sense of the labor, the skill, the economy, the geographic and historical influences, and the palate of a person.”

And so when he set out to organize an exhibit in conjunction with the 90th anniversary of Harry Houdini’s death, Colleary culled the Ransom Center’s collection of the magician’s papers and books for any information on what the famous illusionist liked to eat.

Says Colleary: “For a figure like Houdini, (understanding what he ate) cuts through the legend directly to the person, who, like everyone else, has to eat.”

The Houdini exhibit, on view through Nov. 6, dovetails with “Houdini Speaks to the Living,” a new play devised from the Ransom Center’s Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle collections to imagine the two men in a debate about the true nature of magic.

Sherlock Holmes author Doyle was adamant in his belief in the supernatural, while Houdini spent considerable efforts debunking fraudulent psychics. Produced by Hidden Room Theater, the play opens Oct. 21. Read our story about the show here.

For the Houdini exhibit, Colleary tracked down two celebrity cookbooks — “Celebrated Actor Folks’ Cookeries” (1916) and “The Stag Cook Book: Written for Men by Men” (1922) — in which he found three recipes attributed to the performer.

Yes, celebrity cookbooks were a thing a century ago.

“Celebrity cookbooks had been popular for some time before the early 20th century,” says Colleary. “But a new generation of home economics made home cooks more skilled and comfortable at what they were doing.”

“And the rise of the theater and vaudeville circuits as well as the advent of radio and film also greatly expanded the number of celebrities.”

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Houdini’s recipe in “Celebrated Actor Folks’ Cookeries: A Collection of the Favorite Foods of Famous Players,” 1916. Courtesy Harry Ransom Center.

There’s scant evidence that the renowned illusionist had much interest in actually conjuring things up in the kitchen himself, though. His wife, Bess, did most of the cooking.

Says Colleary: “One biography said that Houdini’s idea of comfort was to sit in his armchair in his library and wait for Bess to call up, ‘Young man, your lunch is ready!’”

Born in Budapest to a Jewish family, Houdini immigrated as a child with his family to the United States in 1878. Not surprisingly, the food he found most dear throughout his life reflected his Hungarian and Jewish background — dishes his mother would have made at home, Collary notes.

Bess mentioned that her husband’s favorite foods included Hungarian chicken (otherwise known as chicken paprikash), spatzel (egg noodles) and custard bread pudding with bing cherries. That Houdini also enjoyed Hungarian goulash is noted by several biographers.

Houdini’s published recipes, however, don’t specifically reflect his family’s ancestral foodways but rather represent more quotidian American fare of his era.

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Houdini’s recipes in “The Stag Cook Book: Written for Men by Men.,” Courtesy Harry Ransom Center.

Houdini met his wife while both worked as vaudeville performers on Coney Island. They married on June 22, 1894, and, Colleary says, the couple spent many of their anniversaries at Coney Island eating hot dogs and strolling the boardwalk.

For their 25th anniversary, however, the couple invited 200 guests to the Hotel Alexandria in Los Angeles for a ten-course banquet that included Crab Supreme, Breast of Chicken Virginienne, strawberry parfait and champagne — a menu Colleary found reported in a newspaper of the time.

 

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“The Stag Cook Book: Written for Men by Men,” collected and edited by C. Mac Sheridan, 1922. Courtesy Harry Ransom Center.

 

Houdini died Oct. 31, 1926, of complications resulting from a ruptured appendix. He was 52.

And the magician’s last meal?

Colleary discovered that Houdini ate something rather familial — Farmer’s Chop Suey, a chopped salad with yogurt or sour cream that was popular with Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.

A recipe typical of the period is here: http://www.antiquerecipes.net/farmers-chop-suey/

 

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“Celebrated Actor Folks’ Cookeries: A Collection of the Favorite Foods of Famous Players,” compiled by Mabel Rowland, 1916. Courtesy Harry Ransom Center.


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