It started, as bonkers things often do, at a party in college.
The theme was dead celebs and historic figures. People dressed like Adam and Eve, Sid and Nancy. Then-student Frank DeCaro went as Euell Gibbons, the Grape-Nuts cereal spokesman who famously claimed pine trees were edible.
"He was a naturalist," said DeCaro, who carried a pine tree through the party. "He ate all this healthy food and then he dropped dead."
DeCaro became obsessed with dead celebrities and their food. He scoured flea markets and surfed eBay, amassing hundreds of recipes from magazines, out-of-print cookbooks and vintage microwave manuals. At the same time, his career as a writer and performer took off. He appeared on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and landed his own show on Sirius Satellite Radio, The Frank DeCaro Show.
He revered pop culture, and found it distressing that young people lacked knowledge of old Hollywood.
"Pop culture history has not been passed on," said DeCaro, 49. "I hear the excuse, 'I wasn't born when that happened.' I wasn't born when Mae West was having her heyday, but I can quote her. If Lady Gaga can know who Liberace is, so can you."
Enter his latest project, The Dead Celebrity Cookbook: A Resurrection of Recipes From More Than 145 Stars of Stage and Screen. There's Patrick Swayze's Chicken Pot Pie, Elizabeth Taylor's Chicken With Avocado and Mushrooms, Farrah Fawcett's Sausage and Peppers Supreme. He included three Golden Girls, and called Michael Jackson "the King of Pie."
DeCaro dished on his favorite (and not so favorite) recipes from the book. If you try them, make sure to let your meat rest in peace.
Did you make all of the recipes?
I made a third of them before the book went to press. It's not Julie and Julia.
What was your favorite?
I was very tickled with Liberace's Sticky Buns. They start out with crescent rolls from the refrigerator case. They end up tasting so good that you never want to go in Cinnabon again. I made 24 and I ate nine before they were cool enough to handle. We had Cookie Monster on my radio show recently, and he said, "You know, Frank, cookies are a sometimes food." I said, "Not Liberace's Sticky Buns."
What was the worst?
I feel so bad, I've been slamming her all over the place. Isabel Sanford's Boston Chicken is pretty yucky. I'm not convinced it's a good idea to spread your chicken with a combination of apricot jam, Russian dressing and onion soup mix.
What was the simplest?
The one I really like that I have to make again is Harriet Nelson's Chicken Casserole. You take rice and mix it with three kinds of cream soups. Cream of chicken, cream of celery and cream of mushroom. Then you add cream and butter, because it's not rich enough. You don't need a defibrillator yet. And then you add chicken on top. It's very 1950s-tasting and very comforting.
Who had weird taste?
Carolyn Jones, who played Morticia Addams. Her recipe was called That Fish Thing. I kept thinking about Thing, the disembodied hand from The Addams Family. It was sort of this rolled-up fish dish that kind of creeped me out a little.
Have you heard from any families?
No. The recipes were sort of out there. It's not a scandalous kind of thing. It's really a tribute to these performers and a time when watching them cook on a talk show or getting a glimpse of their kitchen in an article was a very big kind of thing, unlike today, when everyone who has a smartphone is a gossip columnist. The mission is to keep their name out there and share pop culture history. There are so many celebrity cookbooks that involve the recipes of departed stars that make it seem so funereal. Instead, I'm saying their work lives on and now their recipes live on.
What makes a recipe endure?
Sometimes recipes survive on taste bud nostalgia. Your taste buds crave something you had when you were a kid. Something that when you go back and make them, they're really still kind of good and they hold up. Anything that's made with a lot of love and laughs, you end up liking the taste of it later on. One thing that's better about having recipes from dead people is, if you change them, they can't complain.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected]