Dietary advice may vary from expert to expert, but whatever the era, there is one constant to be found in books of dietary advice – the authoritative tone of the authors. It is always interesting to look at old books on nutrition. One is reminded by these books that whatever is old today will be new again soon, and whatever nutrition idea seems novel today is surely to be found in some form or another in the past.
I came across an interesting book on diet and nutrition the other day – or rather, I found online versions of two of the three volumes of Dietotherapy, (New York, 1918) by William Edward Fitch (and forty other contributors.) The dietary advice in this book does get very specific at times, as you will see from the following extract:
Diet for Professional Singers and Lecturers; 1918.
Beyond question diet exerts more or less influence on the fullness and richness of the voice. A hearty meal interferes with full, free respiration to the extent that singing is practically or even entirely impossible. The vocal cords may become congested following the ingestion of food or drink, and smoking often exerts an injurious effect upon the voice. Alcoholic drinks imbibed to excess, as well as irritating articles of food, may, and often do, impair the tone of the voice and should be omitted.
Opera singers possess peculiar and curious idiosyncrasies. Certain articles of alimentation exert a deleterious effect upon the voice of some, while the same food will have just the opposite effect on others. Ruhräh, quoting Russell in "Representative Actors," delineates an interesting list of foods and beverages partaken of by prominent stage folk prior to appearing before the footlights. He states that "Edmund Kean, Emery and Reeve drank cold water and brandy; John Kemble took opium ; Lewis, mulled wine and oysters; Maeready was at one time accustomed to eat the lean of a mutton chop previous to going on the stage, but subsequently lived almost exclusively on a vegetarian diet; Oxbury drank tea; Henry Russell ate a boiled egg; W. Smith drank coffee; Braham drank bottled porter; Miss Catley took linseed tea and Madeira; G. F. Cook would drink anything; Henderson used gum arable and sherry; Incledon drank Madeira; Mrs. Jordan ate calves'-foot jelly and sherry; C. Kean took beef tea: Mrs. Wood sang on draught porter; Harley took nothing during a performance. Malibran, it is said, ate a lunch in his dressing-room half an hour before singing. This consisted of a cutlet and half a bottle of white wine, after which he smoked a cigarette until it was time to appear."
While discussing food and drink for actors and their peculiar idiosyncrasies, we will relate the dietary habit of Mr. Edmund Kean, who, according to Smith "was in the habit of adapting the kind of meat he ate to the part he had to play, choosing pork for tyrants, beef for murderers, and lamb for lovers." This may seem a stretch of the imagination, "but it may indicate that there are subtle differences in the different kinds of meat which chemistry has not enabled us to detect, but which are yet not without influence upon the body."
Ordinarily, no food should be partaken of immediately before singing or speaking, but a good meal should be ingested some three hours before, which should be somewhat lighter than usual. It is the habit of many singers and speakers to refrain from food prior to their performance or lecture, and to partake of a good full meal soon after. According to Ruhräh, the food much used by singers is the so-called "Jenny Lind soup," which is a very bland potion, and does not impair the voice. "It is made of bouillon and sage, to which are added the yolks of two eggs and half a pint of cream before serving; sugar and spices are added according to taste. Many prominent singers suck an orange, while others chew dried plums immediately preceding their performance." During the interval between performances, a singer, like any other professional person, should subsist on a well-balanced general diet, of course avoiding irritating foods.
Singers who have a tendency to obesity should follow the dieting and exercise laid down in Volume III, Chapter XII, for the treatment of this condition. Alcoholic liquors and strong beverages do not in any way improve the voice, but on the other hand may exert a deleterious effect, and should therefore be avoided. Light wines and beer in moderation may usually be taken with impunity. They are best avoided, however, as their continual use may possibly lead to the formation of a drinking habit. Many of the best singers are of the opinion that smoking is injurious to the voice; on the other hand, many famous male singers are habitual users of tobacco and are rarely seen without a cigar in their mouth.
I have touched on food with a musical theme or connection in several previous posts over the years (here, and here, for example) and have also given recipes for Jenny Lind Soup and Jenny Lind Cake (here.) Today I give you a soup inspired by Puccini’s opera Tosca:
Peel and cut a cucumber in small squares, boil in salt water until soft, and then allow to become cool. Cut ½ stalk of celery julienne style, and cook in salt water until soft. Cook ¼ pound of large barley in salt water till soft, and cool. Boil 3 pints of consommé, add 2 peeled tomatoes cut in very small squares, and boil for 2 minutes. Add the cucumber, celery and barley, and serve. (Yield: 8 portions)
The Master Books of Soups (1900) by Henry Smith