Liberace’s sticky buns. That’s Frank DeCaro’s favorite recipe in his freshly published Dead Celebrity Cookbook (HCI Books, $19.95), and the reason has nothing to do with taste—although DeCaro says the packaged crescent rolls doused in rum, butter and enough seasoning to spice a pumpkin pie are dangerously delicious. “It just kills me,” says the Sirius Radio talk show host and former “Daily Show” film critic, “but only if he’s in on the joke. If he’s not in on the joke, it’s just sad.”
This is a theme throughout The Dead Celebrity Cookbook, which features obscure recipes from more than 145 stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age. It should be noted that a number of the nuggets are actually delicious: Harriet Nelson’s “favorite chicken,” for example, is bathed in entire cans of cream of chicken, mushroom and celery soup and “should come with a defibrillator,” says DeCaro. The recipes, however, weren’t chosen because they’re tasty. They also weren’t chosen for their oddity, even though there are certainly some strange ones in the mix (Don Ho’s pig foot soup, here’s looking at you). Rather, they were all chosen out of love.
DeCaro started gathering recipes after an early ’80s “dead celebrity” costume party he attended at Northwestern University. “It was one of those parties that becomes sort of legendary in your own private mythology,” he says. He dressed as Euell Gibbons, the guy who claimed pine trees were edible in a Grape-Nuts commercial. The host channeled Judy Garland, who carried a pill bottle the entire night that read, “Take Until Dead.” But the one thing that was obviously absent from the event, he says, was the food of the people they were memorializing. For more than 15 years, DeCaro scoured flea markets, old microwave manuals and eBay for bits of culinary ephemera. He amassed a stockpile, “and then you have to do something with them, or the ‘Hoarders’ people come and take all your toys away,” he laughs. And so DeCaro put them into a book.
“You can’t dance better than Baryshnikov, but you might be able to cook better than Baryshnikov.”
The Dead Celebrity Cookbook is much more than a library of his findings. It’s a love letter to old Hollywood. “I feel like we don’t pass along our pop culture history at all,” he says. “Since we live in an era where you can call up clips of anybody or anything at the drop of a hat, you don’t really have to remember anything.” DeCaro’s cookbook is his attempt at a remedy, and that’s why with every recipe he’s included a jocular description of the author of the dish—to teach a new generation about the stars he still cherishes.
Food serves as a good medium for the task because “eating and preparing food is such a personal, intimate kind of thing,” he says. “To share a meal with someone, particularly a celebrity, is a fantasy of so many.” The recipes are also a reminder of a time when endless bytes of information about stars weren’t readily available, when discovering one of their recipes was “a kind of window into their personal lives,” he adds. That, in turn, invokes a humanizing element. “You can’t dance better than Baryshnikov,” DeCaro says, “but you might be able to cook better than Baryshnikov.”
For DeCaro, The Dead Celebrity Cookbook isn’t so much about food as it is about people. “Whether you cook one of the dishes or not,” he says, “knowing who these people are and seeing their movies will enrich your life.”
In honor of this weekend’s Academy Awards ceremony, we’ve pilfered a few old-school recipes from some Oscar-winning leading ladies. For all your fashionably nostalgic Oscar party needs:
1) Add cheese and butter to bowl of a food processor and blend until smooth. Add flour, Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce to form dough. 2) Wrap each olive in a small amount of dough, completely covering the olive and forming a ball.3) Place on an ungreased cookie sheet and freeze. Transfer to a plastic bag and store in freezer until ready to use. 4) To cook, place on a baking sheet and bake at 400˚ F for 12 minutes, or until crust is golden. Serve hot.
1) Rinse and dry fish. Cut lemons in thin slices.2) Place slices on both sides of the fish. Wrap fish in a double thickness of cheesecloth and secure with kitchen string. 3) Put water, onions, celery, parsley, bay leaves, crushed peppercorns and salt in a fish poacher or on a rack in a deep saucepan. Cover and simmer 30 minutes. 4) Place fish on rack in the kettle so that it is halfway submerged in the water. Cover and slowly simmer 40 minutes, or until fish is barely done. 5) Place fish on a heated platter. Remove cloth and lemon slices carefully. Combine mayonnaise, prepared mustard and lemon juice; mix well and serve with fish. (Fish and dressing may also be served cold on a bed of lettuce.)
1) Melt chocolate and butter in a heavy saucepan over low heat. 2) Remove from heat and stir in sugar. Add eggs and vanilla and beat well. Stir in flour, salt and walnuts. Mix well.3) Pour into a buttered 8-inch square baking pan. Bake at 325˚ F for 40 minutes. Cool and cut into squares.