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Mikey Burton (Illustration). ALAMY (1-8, 10-13). CORBIS (9)

The Dishes 16 Writers Would Bring to a Literary Potluck

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Mikey Burton (Illustration). ALAMY (1-8, 10-13). CORBIS (9)

A version of this story originally appeared in print in the November 2014 issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

We combed the archives to discover some of our favorite authors’ favorite recipes.


Poe loved a stiff drink, and his family’s brandy-spiked nog recipe has been passed down since 1790. As a student at West Point, Poe boldly carried brandy with him everywhere. After the school’s infamous “Eggnog Riots,” just thinking about booze meant arrest and expulsion.

7 eggs, separated
1 cup sugar
5 cups whole milk, divided
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
1 1/2 cups brandy
1/4 cup rum

1. In a medium bowl, combine egg yolks and sugar, whisking until thick and pale. Set aside.

2. Fill a large bowl with ice water and set aside. In a small saucepan, warm 3 cups milk over low heat. Whisk 1 cup warm milk into yolk mixture. Add this back to the milk in the pan, stirring over low heat until combined and thickened. Remove from heat and quickly stir in cream.

3. Place saucepan in prepared ice bath. Stir occasionally until chilled, then add brandy, rum, and remaining 2 cups milk.

4. Pour eggnog into glasses. In a medium bowl with a handheld mixer, beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Spoon egg whites over eggnog, and top with grated nutmeg.

2. RAY BRADBURY: Pizza Soup

A true starving artist, Bradbury had only $8 in the bank when he got married. He saved dough by hacking tomato soup recipes. He loved it so much, he requested his ashes be buried in a Campbell’s can on Mars. His recipe calls for a can of tomato soup plus one pound of crackers.

1 can Campbell's tomato soup
1 quart of milk
1 pound of crackers

Heat soup, keep adding milk. Crunch crackers constantly into mix until you get what looks like a liquid pizza.


Oddly, “Papa’s Favorite Wild West Hamburger” recipe was found in the JFK presidential library. Turns out Hem was a burger snob who liked to baste his meat in wine. “There is no reason why [it] has to turn out gray, greasy, paper-thin, and tasteless,” lectured Papa.

You can add all sorts of goodies and flavors to the ground beef—minced mushrooms, cocktail sauce, minced garlic and onion, ground almonds, a big dollop of Piccalilli, or whatever your eye lights on. Papa prefers this combination.


1lb. ground lean beef
2 cloves, minced garlic
2 little green onions, finely chopped
1 heaping teaspoon, India relish
2 tablespoons, capers
1 heaping teaspoon, Spice Islands Sage
1/2 teaspoon Spice Islands Beau Monde Seasoning
1/2 teaspoon Spice Islands Mei Yen Pepper
salt and pepper
1 egg, beaten in a cup with a fork
About 1/3 cup dry red or white wine
1 tablespoon cooking oil

What to do

Break up the meat with a fork and scatter the garlic, onion and dry seasonings over it, then mix them into the meat with a fork or your fingers. Let the bowl of meat sit out of the icebox for ten or fifteen minutes while you set the table and make the salad. Add the relish, capers, everything else including wine and let the meat sit, quietly marinating, for another ten minutes if possible.

Now make four fat, juicy patties with your hands. The patties should be an inch thick, and soft in texture but not runny. Have the oil in your frying pan hot but not smoking when you drop the patties and then turn the heat down and fry the burgers about four minutes. Take the pan off the burner and turn the heat high again. Flip the burgers over , put the pan back on the hot fire, then after one minute, turn the heat down again and cook another three minutes. Both sides of the burgers should be crispy brown and the middle pink and juicy.

4. ALLEN GINSBERG: Cold Vegetarian Borscht

The Beat poet loved to cook soup—in the sink. Ginsberg made soup so often, he hung a small rack outside his loft window to let his big 12-gallon stockpot cool. He didn’t need it for his summery borscht, which is served cold and, coincidentally, full of beets.

Dozen beets cleaned & chopped to bite size salad-size Strips
Stems & leaves also chopped like salad lettuce
All boiled together lightly salted to make a bright red soup,
with beets now soft – boil an hour or more
Add Sugar & Lemon Juice to make the red liquid
sweet & sour like Lemonade

Chill 4 gallon(s) of beet liquid -

Serve with
(1) Sour Cream on table
(2) Boiled small or halved potato
on the side
(i.e. so hot potatoes don’t heat the
cold soup prematurely)
(3) Spring salad on table to put into
cold red liquid
1) Onions – sliced (spring onions)
2) Tomatoes – sliced bite-sized
3) Lettuce – ditto
4) Cucumbers – ditto
5) a few radishes
Suitable for Summer Dinner

5. PEARL S. BUCK: Sweet and Sour Fish

Buck grew up in China and considered Asian cookery the world’s best. As a child, she had meals with Chinese servants instead of eating American fare with her family, an experience that inspired her to write the Oriental Cookbook in 1972.

6. VLADIMIR NABOKOV: Eggs à la Nabocoque

Nabokov’s most painful rejection came when his literary recipe was left out of Maxime de la Falaise’s cookbook: If a cracked egg in “water (now bubbling like mad) starts to disgorge a cloud of white stuff like a medium in an old-fashioned séance, fish it out.”

“Boil water in a saucepan (bubbles mean it is boiling!). Take two eggs (for one person) out of the refrigerator. Hold them under the hot tap water to make them ready for what awaits them.

Place each in a pan, one after the other, and let them slip soundlessly into the (boiling) water. Consult your wristwatch. Stand over them with a spoon preventing them (they are apt to roll) from knocking against the damned side of the pan.

If, however, an egg cracks in the water (now bubbling like mad) and starts to disgorge a cloud of white stuff like a medium in an old fashioned seance, fish it out and throw it away. Take another and be more careful.

After 200 seconds have passed, or, say, 240 (taking interruptions into account), start scooping the eggs out. Place them, round end up, in two egg cups. With a small spoon tap-tap in a circle and then pry open the lid of the shell. Have some salt and buttered bread (white) ready. Eat.

November 18, 1972


Before kale was the superfood we massaged, blended, and blogged about, it was simply Mary Shelley’s favorite veggie. Since her husband, the poet Percy, had such bad eating habits—sometimes he’d work so hard he’d forget to eat—Mary kept a well-stocked garden so the bard would get his greens.


Nietzsche avoided restaurants because he tended to gorge himself, so he asked his housemaid to teach him how to make risotto. Of course, being Nietzsche, he remained skeptical. “A diet consistent primarily of rice leads to the use of opium and narcotics,” he wrote.

9. HARPER LEE: Crackling Bread

Ask the Pulitzer-winning author why the South lost the Civil War and she may blame the soldiers’ hankering for crackling bread, a mix of cornmeal and pork rinds. “Some historians say this recipe alone fell the Confederacy,” Lee wrote. Understandable, considering her recipe begins: “First, catch your pig.”

Then ship it to the abattoir nearest you. Bake what they send back. Remove the solid fat and throw the rest away. Fry fat, drain off liquid grease, and combine the residue (called "cracklings") with 1 1/2 cups water-ground white meal, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1 egg, 1 cup milk. Bake in very hot oven until brown (about 15 minutes). Result: one pan crackling bread serving 6. Total cost: About $250, depending upon size of pig. Some historians say by this recipe alone fell the Confederacy.

10. F. SCOTT FITZGERALD: Turkey Leftovers

In his private papers, Fitzgerald listed 13 uses for leftover Thanksgiving turkey. These included a vermouth bird cocktail, a side of monkey meat, and dishes stuffed with mothballs, stewed in washing machines, and blown up with bicycle pumps.

11. EMILY DICKINSON: Gingerbread

When the Dickinson family cook quit, Emily began baking their daily bread. The poet’s baked goods won awards, and she was known for lowering baskets full of gingerbread down from her window to children below. She also jotted poetry on the back of food wrappers, like proto-Snapple facts.

1 quart flour
½ cup butter
½ cup cream
1 tablespoon ginger
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon salt
Make up with molasses [ PDF]


Steinbeck liked to eat local. In England, he’d hunt for dandelion greens. In California, he made butter and cheese with the milk from his own personal cow. In New York, he fished for dinner. But traveling on the road, Steinbeck ate like a college freshman. His posole recipe is simply a “can of chili and a can of hominy.”

13. EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY: Blueberry Pie

When life hands you blueberries, make pie. The Pulitzer winner’s childhood chore was to pick blueberries at her uncle’s farm, and decades later, she’d buy a 635-acre blueberry farm called Steepletop, writing The King’s Henchman under a hut in the berry pasture.

14. LEO TOLSTOY: Macaroni and Cheese

The Tolstoy family's cookbook was filled with instructions for how to make everything from stuffed dumplings to spiced mushrooms to Anke pie, which was named after a friend of the family who gave Leo’s mother-in-law the recipe. (Leo’s son Ilya wrote in his memoirs that “all festive occasions, big holidays and name days were always and invariably celebrated with Anke Pie.") The Tolstoys also enjoyed a good mac and cheese:

Bring water to a boil, add salt, then add macaroni and leave boiling on light fire until half tender; drain water through a colander, add butter and start putting macaroni back into the pot in layers – layer of macaroni, some grated Parmesan and some vegetable sauce, macaroni again and so on until you run out of macaroni. Put the pot on the edge of the stove, cover with a lid and let it rest in light fire until the macaroni are soft and tender. Shake the pot occasionally to prevent them from burning.

15. Alice B. Toklas: Mushroom Sandwiches

OK, so it’s not her infamous Haschich Fudge. Still, in her 1954 cookbook, Gertrude Stein’s partner noted that “Mushroom sandwiches have been my specialty for years.” She offers two versions, the second of which makes "a delicious sandwich that tastes like chicken. A Frenchman can say no more."

16. Sylvia Plath: Tomato Soup Cake

Sylvia Plath loved to bake. In 1957, she wrote in her journal that “[i]nstead of studying Locke, I go make an apple pie, or study The Joy of Cooking, reading it like a rare novel." She often wrote as she baked, penning "Death & Co." while she made her specialty, tomato soup cake.

Image credit: Mikey Burton (Illustration)

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]