Don't Be Gruel
How Elvis Ate His Way to Fame

by Betsy Thaggard

This article originally ran in the Dallas Observer and
was carried by 15 other U.S. and Canadian publications.

Between 1956 and 1969, Elvis Presley made 33 movies. Despite such touches of class as a Clifford Odets script (Wild in the Country), Edith Head costumes (Viva Las Vegas, Fun in Acapulco) and a psychological consultant (for a scene with an autistic child in Change of Habit), none of these flicks was anything more than a star vehicle, an excuse for the King to sing a few songs, deck a few rivals, and woo a lot of ladies.

There's one other recurring theme in this poor pastiche, one that has been ignored but which foreshadows the future of The Big E better than any other element of his cinematic career: food, and we don't just mean jelly donuts.

Just like his life, Elvis's movies start out practically foodless, even though in his first movie, Love Me Tender (1956), he manages to chew quite a bit of scenery, especially as he lays dying. From there, we see a cinematic lifetime of food, food, food and girls, girls, girls.

Elvis was known for his huge appetites off-screen and offstage, and his tastes ran to the biggest and most flamboyant. Here was a guy known for saucer-sized belt buckles, fleets of Cadillacs, and diamond rings as big as a Holiday Inn. The formal dining table in Elvis's estate Graceland is bigger than two king-sized beds. The kitchen and breakfast nook rival a small apartment in size. After all these years, even with readily available celluloid and videotape remembrances of a younger, skinnier Elvis, we still think of him as The Big E, with cheeks like a chipmunk's, perfect for storing extra food. (Remember John Belushi's Saturday Night Live parody of the King, complete with jelly donut reference?) To show how it all developed, here are some of our favorite culinary moments with film star Elvis Presley:

  • As Vince Everett in Jailhouse Rock (1957),the King breaks his Love Me Tender fast, starting with a critique of Big House cuisine ("I wouldn't feed this garbage to a razorback hog," he notes, as he spears a forkful) which leads to a dining room food fight. There's plenty more meaningful dialogue in Jailhouse Rock, mostly proving Elvis is a beef kinda guy, especially when faced with newfound singing success (says his business partner/love interest: "Vince, I sold your record this afternoon." Elvis: "Swell. I could tear into a good steak.") and climaxing with the bluff: "You can only eat so much, you know." We'll see about that.
  • New Orleans, one of America's great food cities, hosts King Creole (1958), in which street vendors sing en rondo of their 'taters, berries and gumbo before the opening titles roll. Elvis' first song is about eatin' crawfish, from which he segues into breakfast.
  • G.I. Blues (1960): Stationed in Germany, The Big E falls for a local minx (Juliet Prowse, not Priscilla Beaulieu), a temptress sporting offers of liverwurst, liederkrantz, pumpernickel, sauerkraut and apple strudel. His best pal Cookie prompts, "A man can't do his best work on an empty stomach." Twenty-five-year-old Elvis, meanwhile, excuses his zaftig-inducing appetite thusly: "I'm a growing boy, ma'am."
  • Doesn't it just figure? In Blue Hawaii (1961), filmed in the land of luaus, fish frys and roasted pigs, Elvis grows up on a pineapple plantation with a mother named Sara Lee.
  • Stateside once again in Viva Las Vegas (1963), kitten with a whip Ann-Margret spurns the King's amorous advances in a delicious duet. He: "How's about having dinner at eight?" She: "I'd rather dine with Frankenstein in a moonlight tete a tete." Could faulty table manners be the culprit here?
  • A match made in the kitchen: Elvis falls for chef's daughter Ursula Andress in Fun in Acapulco (1963). Chef Dad supports our faulty manners theory in noting: "You North Americans will never learn to take your time with eating."
  • The King enters his cinematic foods-of-plenty stage with another 1963 release, It Happened at the World's Fair. Cropduster Elvis refers to a couple of comely lasses as "sweet potatoes," hitchhikes his way onto a produce truck, woos a winsome egg roll vendor with a half-eaten lollipop, and sings "I'm Falling in Love Tonight" while staring into a plate of food in the restaurant atop Seattle's Space Needle. During a 35-minute sequence on the fairgrounds, The Big E is seen buying, handling and/or eating sno-cones, caramel apples, all-day suckers, egg rolls, popcorn, Belgian waffles, cotton candy, and more popcorn. Later, he pays a pre-pubescent Kurt Russell to kick him in the shins, likely in an act of culinary contrition.
  • From the fair, we move to the traveling carnival, where Elvis becomes a Roustabout (1964) and learns such carney lingo as "front end" (concession stand), "butcher shop" (candy stand), "grab joint" (hot dog stand), and "grease joint" (hamburger stand). This is heaven, the land of 35-cent pizza, 15-cent sno-cones and 25-cent candy apples. Elvis refuses to join the fire-eater in epee flambe'; "I gag on Spanish rice" is his excuse.
  • As there was feast, so was there famine. 1965 was a slim year for The Big E: Harum Scarum takes place during the Fast of Ramadan, and Tickle Me is set on an Arizona fat farm, where even the luaus are lo-cal. It's starting to affect Elvis by the next year when, during Double Trouble, he sings a version of the childhood song "Old MacDonald" in which misbehaving farm animals become chicken fricassee, hamburgers, and pork 'n' beans.
  • Fortunately, he's saved by a movie named after a foodfest. The theme song for Clambake (1967), sung to the tune of "Shortnin' Bread," informs us that "Mammy's little baby loves clambake food." (Would Mammy's name be Gladys?)
  • Unbridled grub lust takes full control of the King by 1968's Speedway, in which no less a woman than Nancy Sinatra tries but fails to overshadow Elvis' habit. Elvis and Nancy express their mutual devotion in a diner. His dinner order drives a car hop to tears. Sandwich after sandwich trip past his lips. And how does speedster jockey Elvis celebrate his latest racing victory? With a big ol' plate of beans and hot dogs!

Elvis released his last movie in 1969. By then, he was in his mid-30s, he had grown those horrid muttonchop (!) sideburns, and he no longer tucked his shirttails into his pants. It's no wonder then that in that year's Change of Habit, co-star Mary Tyler Moore declines his dinner invitation in favor of her roommate's noodle ring. Next scene, Elvis admits he likes noodle ring. So much for the King's cinematic swan song.

We all know, and would just as soon forget, what comes next. Post mortem documentaries paint a picture of an entertainer who exercised daily and moved like a kung fu master in concert. But even those loving remembrances couldn't ignore one of the King's greatest passions. Just after Cybill Shepherd (who, like Elvis, is a Memphis native and a beef kind of person) informs us that "Elvis had a gentleman's wit...I don't know how to explain that" in Elvis Memories (1981), Graceland's cook Mary Jenkins reveals over a home movie clip of The Big E and his burgers: "He loved hamburger, steaks, roast beef, vegetables, string beans, creamed potatoes and sauerkraut." (All in the same mouthful?) A couple of interviews later, wardrobe guy Richard Davis admits he designed Elvis' trademark white cape and jumpsuits because the King often split his pants onstage. (Where was spandex when he needed it? On second thought, never mind.)

Everything finally falls into place during the documentary Elvis Presley's Graceland (1985). Priscilla B. Presley recalls the "now-famous Memphis to Denver food run," when The Big E and friends one night hopped his jet The Lisa Marie, flew to Denver, where they were met at the airport by a butler carrying a silver tray of peanut butter sandwiches, and then winged it back to Tennessee after the final burp.

Think about it: This wasn't the trek of a food connoisseur; more likely, the fulfillment of a dare based on the braggadocio of a penniless backwoods boy who grew up hungry, who never missed a chance to satisfy his appetites once he could afford to.

Forget the coroner's report about heart attacks and addiction: Elvis Presley simply ODed on success.

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