Every Disney fan knows that there’s always more to see, more to read, and more to learn about Disney and the fascinating person behind the name, myth, and maker of the magic: Walt Disney! So sharpen your Number Two pencil and get out your college-ruled paper because class is about to begin at Walt Disney’s College of Knowledge!
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.” Others “eat to live.” And some people just have simple tastes. Walt Disney was one of those.
Walt’s simple tastes
Walt’s wife, Lillian Bounds Disney, recalled, “Walt ate very simply. He liked basic foods. He loved chili. For breakfast he had eggs, toast, fruit juice, occasionally a sausage. Lunch was usually just a sandwich, milk, coffee . . . he always wanted coffee for lunch. For dinner he sometimes came through the kitchen on his way into the house and sometimes bawled Thelma [Thelma Howard, the Disney family’s housekeeper and cook for 30 years] out for what she was preparing for him. Sometimes his secretary would call me and tell me what he had for lunch because he often used the excuse when he didn’t like the dinner, that he had had it for lunch.”
Walt’s oldest daughter, Diane Disney Miller, said, “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’s not keen for steak—or any of the expensive cuts of meat. He doesn’t go for vegetables, but he loves 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’ there. ‘They pan-fry 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 a can of spaghetti?’”
Walt demanded quality food at the studio.
At the Walt Disney Studio, Walt was often seen in the Commissary, the studio’s employee restaurant. Walt had 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).
In her book, Kings in the Kitchen (New York, Barnes & Co., 1961), Gertrude Booth published the recipe for “Walt Disney’s special secret chili;” this is the formula that is offered when requests make their way to Disney to this day:
WALT’S CHILI RECIPE
2 pounds dry pink beans
2 whole onions, sliced
2 pounds coarse ground beef
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup oil
1 cup chopped celery
1 teaspoon chili powder (more or less to taste)
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 large can solid pack tomatoes
Soak beans overnight in cold water, drain, add water to cover (2 inches over beans), and simmer with onions until tender (about 4 hours). Meanwhile, prepare sauce by browning meat and minced garlic in oil. Add remaining ingredients and simmer 1 hour. When beans are tender, add sauce to beans and continue to simmer a half hour. Serves 6–8.
There was a “galley kitchen” in his Burbank office off of his conference room. Walt 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.
Family food fight … and new wallpaper
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 [my daughter and her husband] 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 and it left a grease mark and I had to change it.”
One of Walt’s former secretaries, Lucille Martin, as well as Diane, recalled that he enjoyed Lemon Meringue, Apple, and Boysenberry Pie.
Walt’s hand-written menu
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 Walt’s preferred foods:
CHICKEN FRY CUBE STEAK
ROAST LAMB—POTATOES + GRAVY
PAN FRIED CHICKEN WITH POTATOES + GRAVY
ROAST CHICKEN WITH DRESSING+ GRAVY
SPAM+ EGGS WITH BISCUITS+ HONEY
OYSTER STEW WITH CRACKERS+ CHEESE
BREADED VEAL CUTLETS WITH BREAD + GRAVY
CHASEN’S CHILI+ BEANS
NOTE: ONLY ONE VEGETABLE WITH MEALS—CORN—CANNED PEAS—LEAF SPINACH—STEWED TOMATOES—ETC.
CARROT + RAISINS
TOMATOES + CUCUMBER
JELL-O—ALL FLAVORS WITH PIECES OF FRUIT
PINEAPPLE—FRESH OR CANNED
FRUIT—FRESH OR CANNED
Walt Disney was a complex and influential man, and perhaps part of his greatness was his simplicity, and his ability to understand that his broader audience was likewise uncomplicated. Diane recalled 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’s just about 140 million people in this country just as corny as I am.”
By Jeff Kurtti
JEFF KURTTI is a leading authority on The Walt Disney Company, its founder, and its history. He is the author of more than twenty books, a writer-director of award-winning documentary content, and a respected public speaker. A Seattle, Washington, native, Kurtti worked as a production coordinator on the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival, followed by two years as the assistant to the president of the California Institute of the Arts. For several years, he 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. Since 1995, Kurtti has enjoyed a career as an author, writer, and consultant in the motion picture, theatre, and theme park entertainment industries. He was creative director, content consultant, and media producer for The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco and a producer of The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story, a critically acclaimed documentary about the famed songwriters.
JEFF’S RECOMMENDED READING
Hungry for more? Check out my friend Marcy Carriker Smothers’s Disney Editions book Eat Like Walt: The Wonderful World of Disney Food.