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Cooking & Eating à la Garbo
- By Danica -



Part gourmand and enthusiastic chef; part fussy eater and self-proclaimed hapless domestic, even Garbo's cooking and eating habits are riddled with contradictions. As such, stories of her gastronomic habits are not only delightfully amusing, but also provide a unique way of further understanding and appreciating Garbo.

Cooking, Garbo-Style

When a friend queried her decision not to marry, Garbo jokingly replied: “There was no one who would have me– I can't cook.” Her supposed lack of culinary skills led her to employ Claire Koger, a housekeeper and cook who took charge of the domestic duties of the Garbo household for over thirty years. Although Garbo continued to claim that “I don't know how to cook” throughout her life, in an interview after Garbo's death Koger ironically remarked that: “I did most of the cooking, but the lady could do it herself too.”

“I fry so seldom I don't even bother with non-stick pans. If I ever do fry something, it's potatoes, and I fry them in peanut oil – peanut oil, it's a must. And you don't use a heck of a lot, just a little....”

“I always buy fresh vegetables. They're everywhere and it doesn't take brains to fix them. They don't taste like anything and they just sit there, [but] I'll tell you a little secret: buy sour cream. They sell it in buckets. All you do is take a great big heap of sour cream and put it on a vegetable with salt and it's delicious ... more fun than with margarine. So get your sour cream, and get going....”

Appetizers at Garbo's generally consisted of cheese and crackers plus a drink, with Swedish herring or caviar for special occasions.

“I could no more stand and wait for a percolator – I'm not made that way,” she told her friend Raymond Daum. “I throw it in a casserole.... Couldn't be simpler.”

Garbo & Sam Green talking about cooking

GG: Two eggs for dinner. I'll boil them. I'll boil the heck out of them. I can't make an omelette. That's a lot of trouble. You have to stand there and watch it and then you slop it over on one side. I've never done one. I've seen somebody do it. I avoid everything which is work except labor work. That I can do. Hard labor I can do.... You mess it up first in a bowl, no? ... It doesn't have to be a very hot pan? Maybe I'll try it. Oh, dear, what ideas you give me. I knew I shouldn't have called you.

SG: If it doesn't work, just throw it away. ...

GG: I really ought to try to do that. It's terribly boring with boiled eggs. I can poach them also, but that's equally boring. I just throw them in a little potsky with boiling water. ... Let them run. Whatever is left, I pick up. It works.

SG: And then you put them on toast.

GG: I don't put them on nothin'. On the plate. What's wrong with that? I don't have eggs Benedict, that I can't make. Poached eggs. They slop around there on the plate, very good. I'll make them for you and you'll see.

Did you know?

 In 1955, Garbo cooked for David Niven and his Swedish wife, Hjördis as they set out on a sailing trip to Catalina Island.

 In the 1960's Garbo often cooked spaghetti for her grand-nephews when they came for a visit.

 One Christmas Day in late 1940's, Garbo, Cecil Beaton, and Mercedes de Acosta met for breakfast and Garbo proceeded to
     tie a towel around her waist and cook ham and eggs for everyone.

Garbo's Grocery List

“May I also ask you to have enough food for me in the apartment for a couple of days – and my bread and cake from the bakery? ... What I need in the way of food is: milk, coffee, eggs, margarine, a little butter, bananas and apples, a couple of vegetables, some cheese, honey and two little steaks. Maybe a little spaghetti and grated cheese...” (From a letter to a friend in Klosters, 1968)

Australian apricots

“I adore – probably it's helping make me sick – those Australian apricots, awfully goody.”

Marrons Glacee

Greta loved them.


“I wonder if they have spraaten – fish, like sardines, in cans. Terribly goody ... I'd adore to eat right now”


She loved pasta, though it disagreed with her. In Klosters, she recalled "if I had spaghetti left over, I used to put [it] out on a piece of newspaper for the birdies. I saw a little birdie [with] a little tiny piece of spaghetti on his beak. He looked so funny. He looked so sweet. They love spaghetti.”

Twice a week, she purchased groceries at the Nutrition Center, where her typical shopping list included eggs, honey, bran, dried apricots, English muffins, and whole milk. She bought her vegetables and fruit at a produce store on Fifty-third and Second.

 According to the proprietor of her favourite produce store,  Garbo loved zucchini and artichokes and was  “crazy about

 Meat was purchased at the Mid-City Food Market or Green Valley Foods on First Avenue. At the Dover Deli, she would
     buy lox, sturgeon, and Nova Scotia salmon.

 More expensive fare was purchased at a gourmet emporium on Madison Avenue or at  Nyborg & Nelson,  a Swedish
     deli on Fiftieth and Second.

 Garbo  and  Einer Nerman  were  close  friends all their lives.  In  New York  they used to go for walks in  Central Park,
     and in Stockholm on Djurgarden. Nerman also knew where Garbo could get to eat her favorite dish – waffles with jam.

Eating à la Garbo

“I have a very peculiar stomach department. I haven't got enough things to digest food with ... if you don't have hydrochloric acid or whatever it is, then the stomach goes on strike. I don't know what the hell is wrong with me, but down we are.”

A Drop a Day...

The one regular pleasure of her day continued to be those two measured drinks. "I hear people say, 'Oh, I never drink alone,‘” she told Daum. "Well, if I didn't drink alone I'd never get a drink.... It's necessary to drink, I've discovered. I have it every day, not one day without it. But only a certain amount. I've had this bottle of glögg for years and years – it's Swedish punch, very strong and delicious.' She could be quite kittenish about it. ‘Let's have a martini," she suggested to Ray one day. "I'm going to feel terribly guilty if you have tea." But she felt more vulnerable than ever, and often the blows came.

The Mystery of the “Special Jam”

In 1937, Garbo travelled from Sweden to Italy. Her luggage consisted of a small, worn suitcase containing no dress, no dressing gown, no bedroom slippers, one pair of blue espadrilles, one pair of coarse flannel sleeping pajamas, and several pots of some sort of special jam. The hotel's cook was never able to discover what kind of fruit the jam was made of, since Miss Garbo kept it locked in her bedroom all day, brought it down to the breakfast table at eight-thirty sharp, scooped it onto her corn flakes, and poured her coffee over the mixture. As she had come to Italy from Sweden, the mysterious jam was undoubtedly lingonberry, her favourite Swedish delicacy.

Lunching with Lubitsch

In late 1938, MGM had told Lubitsch he could direct Garbo's next film and so a meeting between the director and the star was arranged. Screenwriter Walter Reisch was also presentand recalled:Garbo arrived, said she was on a diet and would just listen as he discussed thefilm. Poor Lubitsch had ordered an immense meal – the antipasto, a dozen special dishes, and the chianti, and the frutti, and the cheeses were already on thetable . “I never touch lunch,” Garbo said. “All right,” said Lubitsch. “I will eat and you listen.” He started telling Garbothe story. He got more excited with each line, and forgot the food. An hour later,when he had finished talking, he looked at the table – it was cleaned out. Garbohad been so carried away by his enthusiasm that she had forgotten her diet andput away the whole meal.

Secondsies–Garbo and the Sea Bass

On 14 September 1944 Marcia Davenport, whose Valley of Decision was a best-selling novel the year before, co-hosted a party with Madeline Sherwood, the wife of playwright Robert, at Davenport's East End Avenue apartment. Many notable New York writers and musician were invited, and one of them – John Gunther – asked if he might bring Greta Garbo along. Davenport recalls: At that time, I had the best cook in New York. She had worked for my mother [soprano Alma Gluck] and she was in our family for at least 25 years, so the food was phenomenal. There was a whole poached fish, a great big 8- or 10-pound striped bass or salmon, with all the sauces that went with it. Garbo came, and I cannot remember that she said a word. But she was beautiful.

Everybody had the supper and it was very fine. And when it was quite late in the evening, by one device or another, I got them all out of the dining room so the servants could clear up and not be kept any later than necessary. As a hostess, I began to feel, Gee, I wish they'd start to leave. Then I looked around and thought, I don't see Garbo. Well, if she left, she left. So finally, when most of the guests had gone, I wanted to speak to one of the servants. I slipped into the dining room on my way to the kitchen, and the pièce de résistance, or what was left of it, was still on the table. And there stood Garbo, all alone at the remains, having a fine time calmly devouring the fish.

When the Sphinx Went to Lunch

A good friend told me one day that he had been eating lunch at Perrino's, an elegant restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard in the late 1940s. He had noticed a girl sitting alone at a table opposite him. Instead of using her fork she ate with a dessert spoon and almost shovelled her food down, which consisted of a large helping of spaghetti, meatballs and masses of vegetables. It was Greta Garbo and it was obvious she was making no attempt to protect her anonymity. For dessert she ate two enormous portions of strawberry ice-cream. The news that Garbo had been seen eating in a restaurant gratified me, not so much because of her hearty appetite but because it seemed to indicate that she was beginning to get over her fear of being seen in the open in Hollywood. But perhaps the myth of her solitude was too firmly entrenched. Or perhaps she lacked the strength to fight her way out of it.

A Swedish Palate

Sven Broman: “Garbo was not only talkative, she was more easygoing than all the givers of tips and warnings and advice had suggested. Garbo wanted a vodka Martini, too. She took a pack of cigarettes out of her small, simple zip-up handbag and had lit up using a throw-away lighter before I had a chance to offer her a light .Garbo seemed a bit disappointed with the drink: too much Martini and too little vodka. She mumbled something about their having milder drinking habits in the Alps. ‘I can't eat much nowadays, hardly anything at all. But you can't imagine how much I miss Swedish food sometimes – salmon pudding – that was my favourite dish, and stewed bilberries and herrings and schnapps. Does Skåne [a kind of aquavit] still exist? And string beans and waffles with jam. I haven't eaten vegetables for two years. I am not allowed to touch shellfish – no prawns, langoustes or lobster.” ( Sven Broman met Garbo in Klosters in 1985)

The Morning Menu

In her later years, Garbo's breakfast invariably consisted of whole-wheat toast (unbuttered, with jam) and two cups of coffee.

The ‘Yogurt and Yoga' Period

Despite her love of rich foods and delicacies and a hearty appetite, Garbo was also an habitual dieter and followed a variety of ‘healthy living' regimens throughout her life.

“Madame this is a restaurant, not a meadow”

According to the director [Ernst Lubitsch], Garbo was on a strict diet of raw carrots and cabbage when Ninotchka started. “I convinced her that her screwy diet was no good,” he said. “Roses I got to have in your cheeks!' I told her. ‘One nice thick juicy steak is more important to this picture than all the dialogue!” She finally took his advice and returned to work a different girl. Lubitsch remarked: “Nice pink cheeks! Nice bright eyes! Beautiful!”

Enter Gayelord Hauser

The nutritionist Gayelord Hauser would soon be writing numerous books on diet and beauty, of which Look Younger, Live Longer (1950) and Be Happier, Be Healthier: New Guide To Intelligent Reducing (1952) were the greatest successes. Hauser's books have sold more than forty million copies to date. According to Hauser, ‘Food [...] ‘has to look good, taste good and do good.

Vegetables, fruit juices, and protein-rich health foods were the cornerstone of Gayelord Hauser's philosophy of how to “Eat and Grow Beautiful.” The popular diet guru in his Treasury of Secrets that Garbo had heard all about him from Leopold Stokowski and asked if she could see him. Hauser invited her to the home atop Coldwater Canyon that he shared with his partner, Frey Brown. She arrived alone, Hauser remembered, ‘a vision of breath-taking beauty, with her long hair and fresh golden complexion. She was at that time following a diet consisting mainly of boiled vegetables and thou-shalt-nots. In spite of her radiant beauty, this diet had had a marked effect on her vitality; she was suffering from overtiredness and insomnia, and was in danger of serious anemia.

Garbo liked the gregarious, handsome, six-foot three-inch Hauser, whose first meal for her was veggie-burgers, consisting of wild rice and chopped hazelnuts, mixed with an egg and fried in soybean oil. Dessert was broiled grapefruit with [blackstrap] molasses in the center. One of the few ways to Garbo's heart was through her stomach. She loved the food, she already loved physical exercise, and so her friendship with Hauser was cemented in short order.”

The Hauser Regimen

Hauser: “I made it my task to wean her away from strict vegetarianism, and coax her back to intelligent eating – no easy chore with a woman who has a will of steel,” he stated. “Finally she consented to try my suggestions.”

She was encouraged to continue eating vegetables but to fortify them with bits of protein: ham, chicken, cottage cheese, wheat germ.

“She eats intelligently,” said Hauser of his prize pupil. “One of my favourite lunches, and hers, is a cup of chicken broth with chives, cottage cheese, half a ripe avocado with a vinegar, herb and oil dressing, a slice of pineapple and one piece of toasted and buttered dark bread.”

Hauser changed Garbo's eating habits for life. Thereafter, she patronized health-food stores and subsisted largely – but not exclusively – on chicken, dried apricots and whole milk, with brown beans and biscuits for snacks. She became ‘ferocious' about the punctuality and adequate content of meals, said actress Dana Wynter; who met her during one of Garbo's visits to Hauser's home that continued for the next forty years.

A Life-long Health-food nut??

Was Hauser the sole force behind Garbo's enthusiastic conversion to a more healthy lifestyle and diet?

Mercedes challenged Hauser's seminal dietary influence on Garbo, noting that Dr Harold Bieler, a Pasadena doctor and dietician, was the first to prescribe a vegetarian diet for them both: [Garbo] went to Dr Bieler and began to live on vegetables and fruit. He is the only person, regardless of what others may claim. who has had the slightest influence on her health and physical manner of living. She has continually consulted him about her diet and health for many years: One day on the set of Conquest, a sound technician complained that some strange noise was interfering with the recording. It turned out to be Garbo in her dressing room, puréeing vegetables in a blender – long before she met Hauser.

 In the late 1960's friend Raymond Daum quoted Garbo as saying, “I wish I had Bieler here. If I had Bieler, he'd give me yeast
     and water for two days, no food, no mercy.”

 Friend Eleanor Colt also cited Bieler's influence on Garbo: Garbo lived on “Bieler Broth”.  It was such a lovely, simple soup, a
     purée of zucchini, an onion, some other kind of squash and potatoes.

 The only book Garbo ever endorsed was Bieler's Food Is Your Best Medicine (1965).

Karen Swenson - A life apart
Barry Paris - Garbo
Garbo and swimming
Garbo and Troll dolls
Things Garbo liked - Introduction  


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