Lucille Ball Cooked THAT?

Frank DeCaro talks about his hilarious tribute to bygone stars, The Dead Celebrity Cookbook

by Susan Toepfer
lucille-ball-image
Photograph: Everett Collection

His over-the-top movie reviews were a highlight of The Daily Show for seven years, and he now hosts a Sirius XM Satellite Radio show. But Frank DeCaro's wackiest achievement yet may be The Dead Celebrity Cookbook ($12 at Amazon), a mesmerizing new volume that wraps love letters to departed stars around the recipes that, judging by the amounts of butter and salt involved, might have contributed to their demise. Here, DeCaro reveals the method behind his mixing bowl madness.

More: I have to say, I wish I'd thought of this. I've tried a lot of celebrity recipes over the years, and I've got a lot more I've never tried but can't bear to throw away.
Frank DeCaro:
You have to do something with your hoarding tendencies, or you get on that show and people make fun of you and take your stuff away. That's why I did the cookbook.

More: You've said the book was inspired by a "Dead Celebrity Party" you attended during your days at Northwestern University.
F.D.:
Yes, the winters are very cold there; you have to do something. What's fun is now that the book is out, I've reconnected with the guy who threw the party and other friends. We hadn't talked in 30 years.

More: Where did you find all these recipes?
F.D.:
I've been collecting them for 15 years. I started buying celebrity cookbooks at flea markets and on eBay. Then I just kept amassing anything that had a celebrity recipe in it—brochures handed out in supermarkets, things that came with microwave ovens in 1975. You see something like Candy Hits by Zasu Pitts—how can you not have that on your shelf? Last Christmas, a friend sent me a a bulging card, and when I opened it, there was a pamphlet from a midwest supermarket with "Yvonne De Carlo's Exotic Chicken Ecstasy" from around the '70s. I was beside myself. No one was ever happier with a gift.

More: Do you also collect recipes from living celebrities?
F.D.
: Yes, but what fun is it if they're not dead? I read obituaries not because I'm morbid but I like to see people I adore memorialized in the proper way. I get crabby when their obituary isn't there. This book is a pop culture history lesson in a way, more than a cooking lesson.

More: Did a celebrity ever cook for you?
F.D.:
Charles Nelson Reilly made me lunch once. I did an interview with him and he made vegetable soup.

More: Which are your favorite recipes?
F.D.:
Of the ones I cooked—I tested about a third of them—Katharine Hepburn's brownies are amazing. That is the most famous dead celebrity recipe ever and with reason. Liberace's sticky rolls are delicious. I ate nine out of 24. We had the Cookie Monster on my radio show the other day and he said, "Cookies are a sometime friend, Frank." I wish I'd learned that.

More: Have you gotten feedback from other people who've tried the recipes?
F.D.: 
The "John Wayne Casserole" is a favorite with a lot of people. It's cheese and more cheese—tastes like a cheese souffle that fell. And I get a lot of requests for "William Holden's Hamburgers a la Hong Kong."

More: Which was the worst recipe?
F.D.:
"Isabelle Sanford's Boston Chicken"—two kinds of preserves and onion soup mix and Russian dressing. I have friends who grew up eating it and swear by it. I thought it was Chicken a la Barf.

More: The book is very cleverly divided into chapters, including "An All-Night Oscar Buffet." What do you plan to cook for your Oscar party?
F.D.
: Maybe "Edith Head's Chicken Casa Ladera." It was pretty tasty.

More: There are a lot of chicken surprises here. Maybe I'm naive, but it never occurred to me to cook an avocado, and yet Elizabeth Taylor's chicken has cooked avocado in it.
F.D.
: I know. I was wondering when you put that in—probably last.

More: She looked like she enjoyed her food, so it's probably good. I'm going to try it. But I was so excited when I saw "Harriet Nelson's Favorite Chicken." The mother of one of my friends when I was a kid used to make that dish, chicken baked with rice, and I've always wanted a recipe for it.
F.D.
: It's so good. And it does emphasize using uncooked rice. It's kind of weird when you mix it all together, the hard rice and the cream soups, but it works. The rice actually cooks. It's three cans of cream soup, you look at it and say, what else does this need? Oh yes, cream and butter. 

More: I don't even want to think about the calorie and sodium count. Do you think these recipes contributed to the celebrities' deaths?
F.D
.: I hope not. I've chosen to believe that all the recipes are genuine and I also want to believe none of them died from the food.

More: Lucille Ball gets a whole chapter in your book, and yet you say she wasn't interested in food and never wanted to cook.
F.D.
: I thought any woman who had that much trouble with food—she was attacked by a 12-foot loaf of bread, there was the brawl in the grape vat, the candy factory, the cheese smuggling—she gets her own chapter.

More: I was surprised you didn't include Danny Kaye, who was known for his Chinese cooking, and Vincent Price who, bizarrely, was a gourmet chef. My mother had his cookbook—it was bound in leather!
F.D.
: Vincent Price is going to be the star of a horror chapter in Volume II, if they give me the go-ahead. I'll look for Danny Kaye. I want to build the Dead Celebrities into a brand. Even though the title is irreverent, I love every single person in this book. My goal is to keep their names out there.

Want MORE? Check out our slideshow of great moments in female bonding. 

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First Published Thu, 2011-11-10 12:56

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