Summer brings so many memorable occasions, events, and traditions — not the least of which are the special seasonal foods that we all grew up with, recall with fondness, and pass on as a ritual to our friends and families. Because of the summer weather, foods tend to be portable since we spend the season “on the go.” They also tend to be simple, because who wants to spend time preparing and cooking food when you could be out in the sun enjoying it?
Food is an interesting human experience. Some people are gourmets, with high standards and sophisticated palates. Some people are “foodies,” where the entire experience of creating, shopping for, preparing, and eating a meal is a hobby in itself. Some people “live to eat” while others “eat to live.” Some people just have simple tastes. Walt Disney was one of the latter.
Walt’s widow, Lillian Bounds Disney, recalled, “Walt ate very simply. He liked basic foods. He loved chili. For breakfast he’d have eggs, toast, fruit juice, and an occasional sausage. Lunch was usually just a sandwich, milk, coffee … he always wanted coffee for lunch. Sometimes his secretary would call me and tell me what he had for lunch, because when he didn’t like the dinner, he often used the excuse that he had had it for lunch.”
Walt’s daughter, Diane, says, “Before he married Mother, Father had eaten in hash houses and lunch wagons for so many years (in order to save money) that he’d developed a hash house/lunch wagon appetite. He liked fried potatoes, hamburgers, western sandwiches, hotcakes, canned peas, hash, stew, roast beef sandwiches. He wasn’t keen for steak — or any expensive cuts of meat. He didn’t go for vegetables, but he loved chicken livers or macaroni and cheese. He liked to eat at Biff’s [a little coffee house on a nearby corner]. He felt they did their potatoes “right” by pan-frying them. [Thelma checked, and reported that they were really hash-browned.] Father ate a big lunch at the Studio and then would pick at his dinner. Mother would say, ‘Why should Thelma and I plan a meal when all Walt really wants is a can of chili or spaghetti?'”
At the Studio, Walt was often seen in the Commissary, the Studio’s employee restaurant. Walt insisted on good quality food, and operated the Commissary at cost in order to keep it affordable for employees. A sit-down, adjunct dining area called “The Coral Room” was added later, and Walt dined there with business associates and visitors. Just as frequently, he ate at his desk, and the legend is true — his favorite meal was chili and beans. He preferred to mix a can of Gebhardt’s (heavy meat, few beans) with a can of Dennison’s (less meat, more beans).
There was a galley kitchen in Walt’s Burbank office, just off of his conference room. He sometimes entertained guests in his conference room and offered lunches, light meals, or appetizers. Frequently, this was preceded by an aperitif of V-8 juice, which surprised guests who perhaps expected something, shall we say, a little stronger.
Walt’s favorite desserts were also simple. Lillian recalled, “He didn’t like sweets very much. Sometimes he could be annoyed by something he was served. He didn’t like cake. One time Thelma made a whipped cream cake and Walt was complaining about it. I got so put out that I picked up a piece of the whipped cream and threw it at him. It hit him right in the face. And he picked up some whipped cream and threw it at me. Then we started throwing it back and forth at each other and Bob and Sharon — I remember they were having dinner with us — looked at each other wondering what on earth was going on. I remember that I got some whipped cream on the wallpaper …it left a grease mark and I had to change it.”
One of Walt’s former secretaries, Lucille Martin, as well as Diane Disney Miller, recall that he enjoyed lemon meringue, apple, and boysenberry pie.
Within the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco is a rare artifact of Walt’s humble personal taste in food. A note found taped one morning to the refrigerator door by Thelma (who was also known as “Foo-Foo” to the grandchildren) contains a hand-written list of the culinary heights the Disney family kitchen should aspire to. Under the headline “Walt Disney’s Favorites,” here are some of the foods Walt preferred:
• Chicken Fry Cube Steak
• Roast Lamb with Potatoes and Gravy
• Pan-fried Chicken with Potatoes and Gravy
• Roast Chicken with Dressing and Gravy
• Spam and Eggs with Biscuits and Honey
• Oyster Stew with Crackers and Cheese
• Breaded Veal Cutlets with Bread and Gravy
• Chasen’s Chili and Beans
• NOTE: Only one vegetable with meals — corn, canned peas, leaf spinach, stewed tomatores, etc.
• Carrot and Raisin
• Tomato and Cucumber
• Chef’s Salad
• Jell-O — All flavors with pieces of fruit
• Diet Custards
• Pineapple — Fresh or Canned
• Fruit — Fresh or Canned
Walt Disney was a complex and influential man, but perhaps part of his greatness was his simplicity and his ability to understand that his broader audience was, likewise, uncomplicated. Diane recalls that, when she was a teenager, her father’s unabashed sentimentality and simple emotional communication embarrassed her sometimes. “And I would sit there and say, ‘Oh, that’s corny.'”
Walt rejoined, “All right, I am corny. But I think there are about 140 million people in this country just as corny as I am.”
By Jeff Kurtti
Jeff Kurtti is one of the leading authorities on The Walt Disney Company and its history. The author of more than 25 books, Kurtti worked for Walt Disney Imagineering, the theme park design division of The Walt Disney Company, and then for the Corporate Special Projects department of Disney. Most recently he was creative director, content consultant, and media producer for the cornerstone exhibit at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, California.
Now, Jeff brings his passion and expertise to Disney Insider through a unique online presence called “The Wonderful World of WALT.”