Sailors got scurvy (they should have eaten fruit!). Napoleon often needed to change clothes after his sloppy meals. And explorers set off in search of spices to enhance the flavors of their foods.
These are some of the food history tidbits included in a newly released children’s book. “Pass the Pandowdy, Please,” by Abigail Ewing Zelz and illustrated by Eric Zelz, was released by Tilbury House Publishers on Tuesday. The book looks at what famous folks throughout history ate.
From Cleopatra and her guests eating with their hands — and her red lipstick made from crushed beetles and ants — to Neil Armstrong’s space food, the book is full of historic tidbits, food insights and interesting information about the people, eras and foods.
“Food is so … cultural. I mean, that seems so obvious, but … The DaVinci one I found really fascinating because it’s not my background at all. So learning about manners and how they shared utensils. And in a lot of cultures they just ate with their hands, things you don’t think about,” Abigail Zelz said.
The Zelzes, who live in Bangor, have been married for 28 years and have a daughter, Charlotte, 19. Eric Zelz is a former graphics manager for the BDN. During a recent interview, they joked that, besides Charlotte, this is their first major project together.
“It was great, of course, obviously, working as a team because you hear so many instances of authors providing their material to an illustrator … they don’t get to see each other’s work until it’s compiled, and we were able to bounce ideas off [each other],” Abigail Zelz said.
The idea came after they met with Jonathan Eaton, co-publisher, and his wife Mariellen, who works in sales and marketing for the publisher.
“We just kind of brainstormed around their conference table on what might be a fun book. When they realized that Abby is a historian, they thought that the combination of food and history might be a fun thing,” Eric Zelz said.
“We all seemed to coalesce around that idea,” Abigail Zelz agreed.
So off they set, with a parameter of how many people could be included — there are 16 — and a plan to include folks from different periods in history and cultures.
“There were always really fun tidbits that we were unearthing. … Some [historical figures] were easier than others, depending on the source material of course,” Abigail Zelz explained about her research. “Cleopatra was difficult because there aren’t exactly a lot of easy primary sources that are specific to her. You can find things on Ancient Egypt. Whereas some of these other people there’s good material.”
Eric Zelz worked closely with his wife, developing sketches and tweaking parts of them. Many of the images are whimsical, like the one of George Washington and his many pairs of dentures, but they’re also careful of cultural connotations.
“We were having fun with it. But at the same time we were trying to retain a certain dignity or respect to the people and the cultures we were representing,” Eric Zelz said. “With Victoria, I was kind of was thinking of a big locomotive — just kind of moving along — so I would have this expanse of her dress. And the way she ate very much was fast, if you can’t keep up with me your meal’s going to be taken away and onto the next thing. It was fun from an art perspective when Abby’s research opened windows or helped create imagery for how to create this … while sticking to the tale.”
What’s next for the couple? This week, they’ll be unveiling their book at book signings at The Briar Patch on Central Street in Downtown Bangor, scheduled from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, during the downtown Bangor Art Walk, and at 11 a.m. Saturday.
They’re also already talking to their publisher about a potential second project.
And in case you’re wondering, a pandowdy is a dessert, featuring a thick crust on top and an apple pie-like filling.
Editor’s Note: Eric Zelz formerly illustrated this author’s food column, Maine Course, for the Bangor Daily News.