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Liberace: Pianist, fashion icon ... and cookbook author

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With the release of HBO’s “Behind the Candelabra,” Liberace is having a belated moment, hailed as a fabulous pianist and a fashion icon. One thing that has been overlooked so far is his career as a cookbook writer.

[For the Record, 3:10 p.m. May 29: An earlier version of this post and its headline referred to Liberace as a gay pioneer. In fact, he never revealed his sexual orientation.]

But not by me, because digging around in mounds of old cookbooks, I found a copy of his “Liberace Cooks!” -- published in 1970.

Apparently, this is a prized possession, one that should never have been relegated to spending several years in a “To Be Filed” stack on my study floor. I don’t remember why I bought it, or where, but there is a penciled price of $9.25 on the frontispiece. With copies selling online for as much as $500 today, that makes a return on investment that just about equals my 401K over the last five years.

Subtitled “Hundreds of delicious recipes for you from his seven dining rooms,” “Liberace Cooks!” is liberally studded with color photographs of the pianist at home. Yes, he did have a red chandelier and what looks to be a Venetian fresco in his TV-watching dining room. And yes, he did have piano keys painted on the hood over his outdoor grill – you knew he would.

But the book is more than an exercise in camp. It is actually fairly sophisticated, at least for its time. Remember, this was back before the American culinary revolution, and certainly before an illustrated cookbook became a necessary accessory for every B-list celebrity.

The food ranges from the kinds of things fashionable ladies would serve at buffet brunches, such as turkey salad and chicken livers with bacon, to outdoorsy hamburgers and a full assortment of kebabs and satays – things his contemporary James Beard would have referred to as “real men’s dishes!”.

Maybe the most interesting recipes are the very traditional-sounding Polish dishes he might have learned from his mother – stuffed cabbage rolls, sauerkraut casserole and paczki. And a connoisseur of cookbooks of that era will notice that there is hardly a can of soup used as a sauce-making shortcut.

So just in case you want to have a little dinner party around “Behind the Candelabra” – in your TV-watching dining room, of course – here’s Liberace’s recipe for Russian Salad (untested).

Russian Salad

Serves 8

3 cups diced cooked beef, veal, or chicken

1/2 cup diced cooked ham

1/2 cup cooked diced beets

1 cup diced, peeled, cooked potatoes

1/2 cup diced pickles

1 cucumber, peeled and diced

2 hard-cooked eggs, cup up

2 tablespoons chopped olives

1 cup kidney beans

1 cup sauerkraut

1/2 cup French dressing

1/2 teaspoon mustard

Use as many of the ingredients as possible. Do not omit the beets, potatoes or pickles. Mix all of the vegetables together with the meat. Mix the French dressing with mustard and pour over the salad. Toss thoroughly but gently.

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