It is hard to believe that Walt Disney, the man who gave us Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, the first successful animated movie classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and who’s legacy is one of the largest multimedia and entertainment empires in the world, had the most basic and simple tastes in food. One would think Walt enjoyed Lobster, Filet Mignon and rich desserts. Disney legend and songwriter Richard Sherman said of Walt in 2009… “Walt didn’t like fancy stuff. . . . He was a very complex man, but his tastes were very simple.”
So with all that has been written about Walt, one would think his eating habits would not garner high interest, but I disagree. It is very interesting to see what a complex, brilliant man liked for dinner! And Walt was a complex and persuasive man among his peers and workers, but he was balanced out by his simple and humble upbringing in the great Midwest, and his down-home ability to bond with people and shares his nostalgia. “Walt ate very simply”, recalled Lillian, Walt’s widow. “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.”
She continued… “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 Howard (Howard worked as live-in housekeeper/cook for Disney) 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.”
Diane Disney, Walt’s daughter, 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 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 went to the coffee shop to inspect their technique, 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?”
It could be said that with all of Walt’s Lofty dreams and aspirations, he was in reality a simple, down-home mid-century man with simple tastes in food. One of his favorite meals was a simple can of chili. He also loved V-8 vegetable juice. Disney Historian Jeff Kurtti once noted that Walt “…frequently, he ate at his desk, and the legend is true…his favorite meal was chili and beans” Walt liked to mix a can of Dennison’s chili (More beans, less meat) and Gebhard’s chili (More meat, less beans). At Walt’s studio, Walt had a wonderful Commissary for his employees. His Commissary was usually run at cost because Walt insisted on quality and affordable fare for his employees. Later on, an add-on dining room was added next to the Commissary called the “Coral Room”. Here Walt entertained visitors and business associates. His menu was light meals, lunch or appetizers. His before dinner choice of an aperitif was a glass of V-8 juice. Many of his guests were a bit surprised, expecting something with a bit more “Giddy-up”.
But Walt also like to head out of the Commissary at times for his meals. Many times he would dine at, which is still in business today called “Chili John’s” in Burbank for his Chili fix. One of Walt’s favorite eateries was the Tam O’ Shanter, one of Los Angeles’ oldest restaurants. This Scottish-themed restaurant is still located at 2980 Los Feliz Boulevard. It still serves the simple, hearty pub fare that Walt loved, basic meat and potatoes. His always sat at table number 31 next to the fireplace. Walt continued to dine here even after he opened his new studio in Burbank.
Another eatery frequented by Walt was Clifton’s Cafeteria, one of the oldest surviving cafeteria style eateries in Los Angeles, and the largest public cafeteria in the world. This icon restaurant was founded in 1931 by Clifford Clinton, and he combined his name for the cafeteria’s moniker. The fare at this place was hearty and robust, offering meatloaf, brisket, roast beef and turkey. In fact, Walt never gave excuses for his affection of basic American food and in 1934 he sent a recipe to Better Homes and Gardens for another of his favorites called “Macaroni Mickey Mousse”. This hearty macaroni and cheese dish was often served to his guests for dinner at his home in Hollywood. A two page list of food that Walt wanted for dinner instead of what Lillian wanted was found in an old Life magazine in Thelma’s room. Diane Disney Miller recalled…“Somehow this list survived through the decades after his death” and this list is displayed in one of the galleries of the Walt Disney Family Museum. Here is a list of Walt’s favorites…
Chicken Fry Cube Stake, Roast Lamb with Potatoes & Gravy , Pan-Fried Chicken with Potatoes & Gravy, Roast Chicken with Dressing & Gravy, Spam and Eggs with Biscuits & Honey, Oyster Stew with Crackers & Cheese, Breaded Veal Cutlets with Bread & Gravy, Chasens Chili & Beans. And Walt only wanted one vegetable with his meals, canned peas, stewed tomatoes, spinach or corn. He also enjoyed salads, which included…Carrot & Raisins, Waldorf, Tomato and Cucumber and a Chef’s salad. And although Walt was not a giant fan of sweets, he did have some favorites…Custards, red Jell-O with fruit, baked apples, bread pudding, lemon snow pudding, gingerbread and cookies made with crunchy chow Mein noodles and melted butterscotch. One of Walt’s very favorite indulgences was pie. He was fancied boysenberry, apple, and lemon with graham cracker crust. In addition, Jello with pieces of fruit, Pineapple, diet custards, and fresh or canned fruits.
Even when Walt traveled, he is alleged to have brought his favorite canned foods, so that he could enjoy his favorites no matter where he found himself. So there you have it. A simple story about the eating habits of one of the world’s most gifted and talented storytellers have ever produced. Walt Disney came from humble and hardworking parents. There were not many luxuries and the family worked hard for everything they got. But as Walt crafted one of the world’s greatest entertainment empires and rose to prominence in Hollywood’s elitist social society, he never forgot his humble beginnings and values, and hard learned lessons on his way to the top. This was proved out in his choice of the food he ate…