Elvis Presley: the King with a sweet tooth
Elvis Presley’s first love was his devoted mother, Gladys.
But his second was surely the peanut butter she spread thickly over his crackers once he had progressed from the mash of canned peas and cornbread on which he was weaned.
When his uncle Vester visited, pretending to be on a peanut butter hunt, little Elvis would fly into hysterics, frantically dragging a chair to the counter to hide the jar.
It was the beginning of the passion and vulnerability that would endear Elvis to a generation of Americans. Drawn in by the raw sex appeal of the skinny young hip-swiveller of the 1950s, many would empathise as he struggled to control his expanding waistline in the 1960s, and millions tuned in to marvel at the lean, tanned charisma he exuded during his glittering ‘1968 Comeback Special’. Deeply affected by the assassination of Martin Luther King earlier that year, Elvis wanted to give his fans a message of racial harmony and hope. Because his manager, Colonel Parker, had prevented him from performing live since 1961, one of the thrills of the show was watching the delight and surprise of the 33-year-old Elvis as he rediscovered his own powers.
Elvis’s grandparents were sharecroppers, and peanuts were a key protein in the diet of these poor Mississippi folk, supplementing a base of bread, lard and greens. Meat was a luxury, and the rare occasions it was brought home by her husband, Vernon, were a treat. But such delights vanished from the table while Vernon served a three-year prison sentence for forging a cheque, leaving Gladys and her son to survive for endless weeks on grits and chunks of processed cheese. The boy developed a bottomless appetite for food, music and attention.
He got his earliest public fixes of all three at the local fundamentalist church, where preacher and congregation alike leaped and jerked in the aisles to shake off the devil (he claimed this is where he learned his famous, hip-rolling moves), and sat down to picnics of congealed salads and dreamy desserts.
At school Elvis seldom had the funds for the peanut butter sandwiches he craved in the canteen. Is it any wonder that when he became the world’s richest self-made teenager, he went overboard? He’d ask his momma to mash two heaped teaspoons of peanut butter with half of a very ripe banana, spread it between two slices of white bread and fry it with two tablespoons of margarine. It had to turn brown. The word “burnt” was high praise from Elvis. “That’s burnt, man!” he’d say in response to a well-cooked burger or a great song.
And Elvis knew how to pick a great song, fighting commercial pressure from management when he felt he was right. In a recent interview Priscilla Presley recalled how he insisted on recording the glorious In the Ghetto, despite Colonel Parker telling him never to get involved in politics. “He said ‘it’s not your genre, you don’t want to be a messages singer’” said Priscilla. “But Elvis put his foot down – and look what happened.”
He ate Gladys’s peanut butter and banana sandwiches warm, with a knife and fork (later taking his own silverware with him to other people's houses because of a germ phobia). Once, he subsisted entirely on these snacks for seven weeks. But his own attempts at frying weren’t always so successful. When country singer June Carter invited the young Elvis to visit if he ever found himself in Nashville, he took her at her word. Finding her out, he broke in and attempted to make bacon and eggs for himself and his friend Red West, but ended up melting Carter’s precious ornamental copper pans onto the stove. Her first husband (honky-tonk singer Carl Smith) later woke the boys by waving a shotgun in their faces, although later he cooked them a second breakfast: Elvis’s charm was hard to resist.
Elvis would subsequently introduce Carter to the voice of her second husband, Johnny Cash, playing his records to her on a jukebox: “Cash don't have to move a muscle,” he told her, with raw envy, “He just sings and stands there.” There were other differences: Elvis liked his peanut butter smooth; Cash preferred it crunchy.
Fame and money did little to alter Elvis’s tastes: he just King-sized the portions of his childhood comfort foods. At Graceland he had a blender installed for his mother at each end of the counter in the kitchen.
After Gladys died, her son devoured his way through grief, shipping his grandmother out to cook for him when the army sent him to Germany. At 24 he fell for the fourteen-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu. When they married eight years later in Vegas (where he could polish off eight deluxe cheeseburgers in one sitting), they celebrated with a massive six- tier wedding cake decorated with pink roses – costing a reported $3,200.
Back home at Graceland he lay in bed in his bejewelled dressing gowns, watching his meals prepared via CCTV. He ordered ‘breakfast’ (generally a six-egg omelette, a pound of bacon, six buttermilk biscuits and a case of Eskimo Pie choc ices) at all hours of the day and night. He drank from glasses big enough to take several cans of cola and snacked on crisps and candy – the fast food that was as much a part of the American teenage revolution as the fast music he sold them. Perhaps by way of compensation, Elvis feasted on fruit at night. The bananas he incorporated into his most calorific sandwiches would also form part of his frequent crash diets.
In her 2003 biography, Bobbie Ann Mason concludes that, in the end, Elvis’s adoring public “ate him alive”. Fifty thousand fans turned up at Graceland after his death, aged 44, in 1977.
Although many like to believe the King’s last supper was a peanut butter and banana sandwich, he actually enjoyed a final snack of peach-flavoured ice cream with six Chips Ahoy cookies.
His hair may have turned white beneath that rich, black dye, but he never lost the sweet tooth of his teenage years.