Marcel Proust, Gustav Mahler, Marina Abramović: Is the secret to artistic success a light lunch?

Are starving artists better artists?

Given that I’ve now devoted two entries in this series to potables—coffee and alcohol—it seems only fair to take a moment to examine artists’ eating habits.

Now, obviously, there are no great secrets of creativity to be found in the meals of great minds. Drinking more coffee can help you produce more work—and, certainly, avoiding alcohol during working hours is a wise strategy—but what you eat is pretty much irrelevant. Right?

Well … That’s what I assumed until I started looking through my Daily Rituals files more carefully. It turns out that there is one common eating habit, and it is simply not eating very much. Over and over, various artists mention that they work better on an empty stomach or after eating relatively little.

The pianist Glenn Gould, for instance, would only eat one meal a day—or, rather, since he preferred a nocturnal schedule, one meal a night. According to Kevin Bazzana’s biography, Gould would visit a local all-night diner for scrambled eggs, salad, toast, juice, sherbet, and decaf coffee. Eating more frequently made him feel guilty, he said, although he snacked on arrowroot biscuits, Ritz crackers, tea, water, orange juice, and coffee throughout his waking hours. On recording days he didn’t eat at all; fasting, he said, makes the mind sharper.

Marcel Proust seemed to share this view. His longtime housekeeper Celeste served him coffee and one or two croissants after he woke in the late afternoon. This was sometimes Proust’s only sustenance for the entire day. “It isn’t an exaggeration to say that he ate virtually nothing,” Celeste recalled in a memoir of her life with the author. “I’ve never heard of anyone else living off two bowls of café au lait and two croissants a day. And sometimes only one croissant!” (Unbeknownst to Celeste, Proust did sometimes dine at a restaurant on the evenings he went out, and there are reports that he ate huge quantities at these occasions.)

Gustav Mahler didn’t skip meals, but he preferred food that was light, simple, thoroughly cooked, and minimally seasoned. “Its purpose was to satisfy without tempting the appetite or causing any sensation of heaviness,” wrote his wife, Alma, to whom it seemed “an invalid’s diet.” The filmmaker Ingmar Bergman favored similarly austere foods. “He constantly eats the same lunch,” the actress Bibi Andersson remembered. “It doesn’t change. It’s some kind of whipped sour milk, very fat, and strawberry jam, very sweet—a strange kind of baby food he eats with corn flakes.”

A number of other figures enjoyed a slightly more varied diet but still preferred to eat essentially the same thing every day. Oliver Sacks wrote a description of his routine for the book, noting that he almost always eats a large bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, a noon meal of herrings and black bread, and tabouli and sardines for dinner (or, if he has company, sushi). When she was staging The Artist Is Present at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Marina Abramović always ate lentils and rice—with no spices and not even salt—in the morning before the performance, and then had more lentils, a whole grain, a vegetable, and a light vegetable consommé when she returned home afterward.

If all of this makes the life of the artist sound awfully repetitive and dull—well, that’s sort of the point. For many artists, deciding what to eat is just one more distraction from the work. If you want to devote hours of intense focus to your art, something else in your life has got to take a backseat, and all too often it is lunch.