Cooking Stars

Before the age of celebrity chefs, there were chef-celebrities. What creations did Humphrey Bogart and Charlton Heston dream up?

We like to think that we live in the greatest food age there ever was. The markets are bursting with viands from every corner of the globe, television line-ups are littered with food shows, and we’ve turned our chefs into little tin idols. But we weren’t the first Americans to love food, or the first to be obsessed by it either. Although we have our celebrity-chefs, the 1950s was justly proud of its chef-celebrities.

I was browsing Bonnie Slotnick’s used cookbook store in New York City the other day, and stumbled upon a fascinating volume by Paul Denis called Celebrity Cook Book. Published by Rockport Press in 1952, it features over 300 recipes by famous people, most of whom seemed, from their comments, like they’d actually cooked the recipes themselves. The author was a gossip columnist for Variety and the New York Post, and we see him in grainy black-and-white photos pinning a corsage on the capacious bosom of Mae West (wild rice stuffing), interviewing June Allyson (crab à la Creole), arm-in-arm with Shelley Winters (Caesar salad), and in a tête-à-tête with Pat O’Brien (stuffed tomato). But all the celebrities were not movie stars, and all the recipes were not as plain and predictable as we might have imagined.

The book includes dishes that originated in the Philippines, Greece, Hungary, Mexico, Alaska, Russia, Louisiana, Brazil, Iran, China, and India. Although some of the recipes are dumb-headed (for example, a curry of canned pineapple and pork sausages), others display remarkable sophistication, like the one for pheasant Souvaroff that begins, “Cook six fair-size truffles in a glass of Madeira.”

Vegetarianism was as big a fad then as it is now. Back then, it was identified as a “movement.” Now, we’re more likely to call it a “lifestyle choice.” There are interesting meatless recipes for carrot loaf, mushroom delight, French rice croquettes, vegetarian vitamin loaf, and a dish featuring spinach, tomatoes, peas, and soft-boiled eggs called “Abel’s Able-To-Take-Your-Vegetable-Vitamins Painlessly,” courtesy of Abel Green, who was the editor of Variety for 40 years. (Green invented the famous headline, “Stix Nix Hicks Pix,” using a headline-writing technique he called “slanguage.” The headline was for an article about why people in rural areas refuse to watch movies about rural life.)

Inevitably, we want to know about the stars that we’ve actually heard of. Humphrey Bogart pens a recipe for spaghetti loaf that includes American cheese, parsley, garlic, and “broken spaghetti;” Bert Bacharach offers a club sandwich featuring hot dogs, bacon, and tomatoes. Clearly, neither were very sophisticated cooks, but I like to imagine that they both wore aprons and whipped up these dishes in their home kitchens.

On the other end of the sophistication scale, stripper Gypsy Rose Lee whips up a mouthwatering gazpacho flavored with scallions, cumin, and wine vinegar, while composer and musical comedian Spike Jones (that’s Spike Jones, kids, not Spike Jonze) concocts marzipan out of almond paste, egg whites, salt, and powdered sugar. Some recipes cause us to reappraise our ideas of certain celebrities: Leftist-turned-right-wing gun nut Charlton Heston tenders a wonderful recipe for spaghetti with cauliflower. It’s authentic in all its Sicilian details, using anchovies, currants, and pine nuts. Given his WASPish background, one wonders where he got it and why he loved it. Still, I find it hard to hate anyone with such a sure taste in Italian food.

Charlton Heston’s Spaghetti with Cauliflower

1 small cauliflower
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, chopped
4 anchovy filets, chopped
1 can chopped tomatoes
1 pound spaghetti
1 1/2 tablespoons pine nuts
1 tablespoon currants
Salt and pepper, to taste

Break cauliflower into small pieces, and wash thoroughly. Cook in boiling, salted water until tender, about 10 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Heat oil in a large saucepan, and add onion, cooking until soft. Add anchovies, and stir well for 1 to 2 minutes.

Add tomatoes. Cover pan, and simmer for about 20 minutes. Add cauliflower, pine nuts, currants, salt, and pepper.

Mix well, and keep over a very low flame. Cook spaghetti, and top with the sauce.

Subscribe to Gourmet