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Creativity

What Andy Warhol Really Ate

Image courtesy of Burger King.

Image courtesy of Burger King.

Andy Warhol was known to eat hamburgers, but they weren’t exactly his go-to meal. In his 1975 book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B & Back Again), the pioneer wrote that he was not too keen on protein.
“I’ll buy a huge piece of meat, cook it up for dinner, and then right before it’s done I’ll break down and have what I wanted for dinner in the first place—bread and jam,” the artist wrote. “I’m only kidding myself when I go through the motions of cooking protein: all I ever really want is sugar.…People expect you to eat protein and you do so they won’t talk.”
But after watching the latest Burger King commercial, which premiered during Super Bowl LIII and declared in its slogan to “#EatLikeAndy,” you wouldn’t guess that the artist had tepid feelings toward meat. It features a clip from 1982 by Danish filmmaker in which Warhol slowly unwraps a Burger King delicacy, then sinks his teeth into it. As many outlets reported following the ad spot, Warhol actually preferred McDonald’s—but for its design, not the food. According to Warhol’s diaries and accounts from his friends and employees, he was not a die-hard burger fan. Instead, for much of his life, Warhol was known to eat very little, indulge in decadent desserts, and in his final years, avoid meat per doctor’s orders.
Warhol typically started his day (which often began in the early afternoon) with a bowl of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes or, later, peppermint tea and a toasted English muffin with marmalade. Unsurprisingly, he also frequently consumed Campbell’s soup, the subject of some of his best-known paintings. In the 2015 BBC Four documentary A Day in the Life of Andy Warhol, BBC correspondent Stephen Smith explained that Warhol’s love for the soup went beyond the aesthetics of the can; he saw it as “the food of life,” Smith said, “a square meal you could depend on.” And Warhol did, regularly.
He enjoyed fruits, too, like bananas (also unsurprising) and cherries. He once recalled eating so many cherries that he had to hide the bowl of pits from his sight. “That’s the hard part of overdosing on cherries—you have all the pits to tell you exactly how many you ate. Not more or less. Exactly,” he wrote. “One-seed fruits really bother me for that reason. That’s why I’d always rather eat raisins than prunes. Prune pits are even more imposing than cherry pits.”
Warhol also had an insatiable sweet tooth. “When I was a child I never had a fantasy about having a maid, what I had a fantasy about having was candy,” he wrote in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. “As I matured that fantasy translated itself into ‘make money to have candy,’ because as you get older, of course, you get more realistic.”
In the book, Warhol also described his recipe for “cake”: “You take some chocolate…and you take two pieces of bread…and you put the candy in the middle and you make a sandwich of it. And that would be cake.” In the 1960s, he frequented the Upper East Side restaurant Serendipity for its speciality, a glass of frozen hot chocolate, which he indulged in at lunchtime.
Other days, however, Warhol skipped lunch entirely. Famously image-obsessed and known for having a daily speed habit, he would take the amphetamine Obetrol (which was branded as a diet pill) and regularly worried about his weight fluctuations in his diaries. In order to stay thin while eating out at restaurants constantly, he developed a strategy for maintaining his figure, which he called “the Andy Warhol New York City diet.”
“When I order in a restaurant, I order everything that I don’t want, so I have a lot to play around with while everyone else eats,” he wrote in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. “Then, no matter how chic the restaurant is, I insist that the waiter wrap the entire plate up like a to-go order, and after we leave the restaurant I find a little corner outside in the street to leave the plate in, because there are so many people in New York who live in the streets.…So I lose weight and stay trim, and I think that maybe one of those people will find a Grenouille dinner on the window ledge.”
While working, Warhol often ordered in from the health food store Brownies on East 16th Street near Union Square, when the Factory was there in the late 1960s and ’70s. (He wrote in his diaries in 1980 that he once sent singer Carly Simon to the store to pick up “health sandwiches.”) When Warhol moved the Factory to East 33rd Street in 1984, he wrote: “I’ll miss ordering out from Brownies, all the carrot juices and stuff. What’re we going to do for food in this new neighborhood? I’ve only seen greasy coffee shops.”
Beginning in the late 1960s, Warhol’s health declined due to the serious gunshot wound he suffered from Valerie Solanas in 1968, but also because of an unhealthy gallbladder—an affliction he inherited from his father. He was told he needed the organ removed in the ’70s, but due to his fear of death and hospitals, particularly following the shooting, he pushed it off until 1987. By the mid-1970s, Warhol was taking pills for his gallbladder before each meal, and he was also given diet advice from his doctors.
Dietician Amy Shapiro notes that people experiencing gallbladder issues are advised to avoid foods high in fat, and should instead seek out “low-fat, easily digestible foods such as simple carbohydrates,” as the gallbladder produces the bile the body needs for digestion. That Warhol was content to eat jam sandwiches for dinner makes sense, she said, because such foods will “more likely than not prevent a flare up.” Fat cuts of meat, she added, could cause the gallbladder to become inflamed.
But Warhol often ignored his doctor’s advice. In April 1980, he wrote: “I’m eating the nuts and chocolate and all the things that I’m not supposed to eat because of my gallbladder, because I think the gallbladder pills are helping so that I can eat them. But I’m getting fat so I’ll have to stop.” And years later, in September 1984, he recalled eating chicken for lunch with his friend Benjamin Liu outside of the Whitney. “And a woman came by and saw me eating chicken and said ‘That’s a no-no,’ and she was right,” he wrote. “I’m not supposed to eat meat. But I’m trying to be more normal.”
Warhol reached a breaking point one evening in February 1987, after dinner with friends at the Japanese restaurant Nippon. He felt sharp pain and went home; he guessed it was “a gallbladder attack” and threw away his junk food. Two weeks later, he was admitted at New York Hospital to have his gallbladder removed, and died shortly after. The surgeon found that his gallbladder was full of gangrene, his body had never fully recovered from being shot, he was dehydrated, and had eaten very little in the month prior, as Dr. John A. Ryan told the New York Times in 2017.
So while these anecdotes only offer a few glimpses into Warhol’s diet, it’s safe to say that the slogan “#EatLikeAndy” certainly comes with more baggage than Burger King’s ads let on. And though it probably wouldn’t be wise to emulate these eating habits, they serve to remind us that the endlessly influential and legendary artist was only human.
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Lead Editor, Contemporary Art and Creativity.