While celebrities now get their food fixes at trendy restaurants like L.A.’s Koi or Nobu, once upon a time they actually cooked. Eartha Kitt made a mean chicken wing, Gilda Radner whipped up a sumptuous apple cake, and Johnny Cash fried okra to perfection. And Frank DeCaro has collected their recipes in a new cookbook called, appropriately, The Dead Celebrity Cookbook. “When I was a student at Northwestern University in the early ’80s, one of my classmates threw a dead-celebrity party,” explains DeCaro. “We all went dressed as our favorite dead celebrities. Everyone was there from Sid Vicious to Eva Perón to Bojangles. The one thing we didn’t have at the party was food that matched our theme. That party planted the seed for this book.”
So over the past 20 years, DeCaro has scoured flea markets and eBay for old cookbooks, magazines, pamphlets, and “really anything that had celebrity recipes in it.” Says DeCaro, “It was either do something with all of it, or get cast on Hoarders.”
“I wrote The Dead Celebrity Cookbook not so much to preserve the recipes but to honor the memory of these performers,” he explains. “A lot of people have never even heard of some of these celebrities. That upsets me. They deserve to be remembered. So for every recipe from a legend like Michael Jackson, there’s one from an obscure character actor like Vito Scotti, or an underground singer like Klaus Nomi, who, you should know, made a killer key lime pie, even if he was from another planet.”
All the recipes are authentic to the stars, though DeCaro notes that he occasionally had to substitute ingredients if they weren’t still manufactured today. But Elizabeth Taylor’s chicken with avocado and mushrooms is, yes, a tried-and-true Liz Taylor original. Ditto Lucille Ball’s Sunday night goulash and Dusty Springfield’s banana pudding. Occasionally DeCaro modified the recipes for modern convenience. “Some of the methodology was pretty sketchy in the original recipes,” he explains. “Many of them were first written down before we had food processors and microwave ovens to make our lives easier. So I updated some of the recipes as I saw fit. Why use a double boiler to melt chocolate when you can use a measuring cup in the microwave?”
And, indeed, the majority of recipes in the cookbook are surprisingly simple, prosaic even. “So many of the recipes these stars shared with their fans were convenience recipes: Open five cans and voilà,” notes DeCaro. “But you can’t blame them for taking shortcuts. That really was what home cooking was like in the ’60s and ’70s, when I was growing up. Canned goods and frozen veggies were ‘modern.'” He suggests swapping out fresh vegetables for some of the canned ones, though notes that with these old-fashioned recipes (many of which contain cans of cream soup) comes a comforting nostalgia.
DeCaro says his ideal meal from the book would begin with Miss Peggy Lee’s Jade Salad. “The dressing has sesame seeds in it, and it’s just exotic enough.” Then would come Ann Miller’s Fettuccine Alfredo because “it’s really rich,” followed by Edith Head’s Chicken Casa Ladera, and then, for dessert, Katharine Hepburn’s brownies. “It’s not considered the most famous dead-celebrity recipe of all time for nothing!” he says. “They’re really incredible, especially if you add chocolate or peanut-butter chips. I like to say, ‘If your brownies are no great shakes, try Kate’s!'”
Yet if DeCaro could have any star from any era could cook dinner for him, it would be Liberace. “His homes were an eyeful, to say the least. Plus, he was a really good cook. You have to find a copy of his book Liberace Cooks! It’s heaven! I’m sure it would be a real wingding,” says DeCaro. “Lee knew everyone so you know your fellow guests would be amazing, and he had so many dogs that if you didn’t like something he cooked, you could easily sneak it to a poodle and no one would ever know the difference.”
And now you can bring Liberace to your dining table: A recipe for his sticky buns (which DeCaro describes as “Cinnabon for grown-ups”) is featured in The Dead Celebrity Cookbook.