But I had to try it anyway
To study Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald is to take a master class in burning the candle from both ends. The two were married the week Fitzgerald’s debut novel, This Side of Paradise hit bookstores, in March of 1920. The first edition of the novel sold out in a day. Scott became an instant celebrity, and Zelda joined him on his pedestal, heralded as America’s first flapper. The Fitzgeralds became famous at the dawn of modern celebrity. The couple was dissected in America’s original gossip columns. They were trailed by proto-paparazzi: William Randolph Hearst had a stringer specifically assigned to tail the two.
And the Fitzgeralds gave the newspapers plenty to print. They did not ride inside taxis but rather atop them. Zelda jumped fully-clothed into the Washington Square fountain. While attending a Broadway show, Scott stripped down to his skivvies, and the couple was removed from the theater, presumably for being more watchable than the actors themselves. Within the span of a single spring, the Fitzgeralds were kicked out of both the Biltmore Hotel and the Commodore right down the street.
Shortly after they were married, the Fitzgeralds spent a weekend at Scott’s alma mater Princeton, to chaperone the college’s house parties. The hijinks immediately ensued. Scott describes the weekend as one where “not one of us drew a sober breath.” He introduced Zelda to everyone as his mistress (and was widely believed). Scott threw himself into brawls and wound up with a black eye in the process. The following week Fitzgerald was ejected from a rear window and suspended from his Princeton eating club. Meanwhile, Zelda’s shenanigans happened at the breakfast table. Zelda brought a bottle of applejack to the table one morning and asked for her eggs to be “omelette flambées,” which, of course, translates to “Spritzed in alcohol and set on fire, please.”
This would not be the first or the last time the Fitzgeralds got weird with their food and drink. Not one guest showed up at Scott’s sixth birthday party, and in response, he ate his entire birthday cake all by himself, and several of the candles to boot. In her autobiographical novel Caesar’s Things, Zelda describes their first few months of marriage like so: “People in the [hotel] corridors complained; there was a tart smell of gin over everything; for years the smell of her trousseau haunted [her]...corsages died in the ice water tray and cigarettes disintegrated in the spittoon.” Zelda’s recipe for breakfast, as printed in Florence Stratton’s 1925 Famous Recipes From Famous Women plays like stand-up : “See if there is any bacon, and if there is ask the cook which pan to fry it in. Then ask if there are any eggs, and if so try to persuade the cook to poach two of them. It is better not to attempt toast as it burns very easily. Also in the case of the bacon do not turn the fire too high, or you will have to get out of the house for a week. Serve preferably on China plates, though gold or wood will do if handy.” For the Fitzgeralds, mealtime was a chance for spectacle. That the meal also be edible was often an afterthought.
I’ve had a whopping historical crush on Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald ever since I read their love letters in college. This past spring, my crush became my full-time job when I was hired to work on the writing staff of the Amazon series Z: The Beginning of Everything. It was our task as a writer’s room to learn everything about the dazzling, doomed pair and translate ten million facts, anecdotes, and apocryphal pieces of lore into a television series. Wanting to better understand what it meant to be a Fitzgerald, I decided to engage in one of their infamous stunts. I wasn’t going to ride on top of a taxi or jump into the Washington Square fountain, but I figured the easiest way to step into Zelda’s satin slippers would be to eat the lady’s most infamous breakfast.
In retrospect, jumping into a fountain might have been easier. Omelette flambées isn’t on your local brunch spot’s menu. It isn’t on any modern menu, and for good reason—eggs burn quick. The dish isn’t worth the trouble. Back in the day, restaurants would come flambée dishes tableside, so at least you were getting a show, if not an actually edible dish. Note that this practice was eventually discontinued after too many ladies’ dresses caught on fire.
I worked my kitchen contacts and got my parents’ local breakfast spot to agree to light up my eggs. A la Zelda, I brought my own applejack, and was led back to the small kitchen. A line cook whisked a few eggs, scrambled them in a pan, gave the eggs a few splashes of applejack, and BOOM, the pan raged with flames.
The cook who flambéed my eggs doused the flames after a few seconds, turned off the heat, and tipped the pan into the trash, dumping out the applejack eggs.
“Oh no, I need to eat those!” I told him.
“You don’t want to eat these.”
“No, I have to, for this internet thing.”
The cook gave me a look and flambéed up another batch of applejack eggs. I imagine this No, but seriously what the actual fuck look was a look Zelda Fitzgerald got every day of her life. She lived for causing a ruckus. Zelda was a picky eater, she stuck mostly to tomato sandwiches. She probably never even ate those eggs, just wanted to see her breakfast go up in flames.
It is not noted in recollections of that day whether Zelda ever actually ate her omelette flambées, but I ate mine and it tasted like… eggs. Okay, maybe eggs with a hint of alcohol somewhere in there. Paul, the restaurant manager who has a far superior palate to mine, had a bite of the eggs, and said he could taste canned artichoke. So there you go. Applejack eggs=canned artichoke eggs.
Eating one breakfast like this iconic woman proved to be much more of an ordeal than I’m used to on an average Thursday morning. Which is the point, entirely. “Everyday is an adventure” is a hoaried old cliché, but for Zelda, it really was. As Scott wrote, in a letter to his daughter Scottie about Zelda “I fell in love with her courage, her sincerity, and her flaming self respect.” Zelda was a difficult and unstable woman, as big a hit as she was at parties, she was near-impossible to live with, which made her a sadly perfect match for her equally difficult and unstable husband. Their marriage took a tragic turn as Scott was consumed by his alcoholism and Zelda’s behavior became increasingly worrisome. Throughout the 1930s Zelda was in and out of psychiatric facilities. At the time, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, Fitzgerald scholars now believe it’s much more likely she had bipolar disorder.
Still, Zelda is best remembered for her charisma and daring and that “flaming self-respect” Scott talked about. Knowing what a celebrity was really like is near impossible, particularly someone with a personality as outsized as Zelda’s. But I think I understand Zelda Fitzgerald just a little better after eating breakfast like her. It was a whole ordeal for me to engage in just one of her daring feats. For Zelda, this was just another morning.