"The colors need to be bright, like saturated neon," Charles Phoenix says, describing his Seven Layer Soda Pop Rocks cake. "You can't have too much food coloring. Think Day-Glo!"
Phoenix is visualizing the elements of an ideal summer party. His ideal summer party. "A pool would be nice, because pool parties are classic summer. And there would be those motorized pool toys with remote controls for the gearheads, so they can fight in the water." A little something for everyone.
"But I think they should be unicorns. Imagine remote-control unicorns fighting in a pool."
Phoenix is an entertainer who is all about Americana, exploring and celebrating our kitschy pop culture past and present through his books and tours, historic slide shows and unique culinary creations. "I was born on a used-car lot," he explains, smiling (his father was a used-car salesman), and he calls himself a child of
Don't have unicorns for your summer party? No problem. Focus on the spread.
Take the Astro Weenie Party Tree. Picture a craft store foam cone wrapped in foil and covered with an assortment of cocktail onions, broccoli bites, cheese cubes and miniature pickles, everything impaled on colorful toothpicks. The tree, originally created for Christmas parties, will work for any occasion — feel free to make it sweet or savory, so long as it contains the namesake cocktail weenies.
"The only limit is your imagination," Phoenix stresses. "You're really crafting here; it's not cooking. Admire, present and then … dig in!"
Phoenix credits his inspiration to historic slides. He began shopping at thrift stores at the age of 14, looking for vintage clothes. One day he happened upon a shoe box of old slides.
"That changed everything," he says. "It was like looking through a window of time."
Phoenix's slide collection easily numbers in the hundreds of thousands. He began noticing the food pictured in the slides, creations like the party tree. And he noticed a lot of ambrosia.
"This is not fine food. This is fun food!" Phoenix says of his Bambrosinana, a layered fusion of ambrosia and banana pudding. Whimsical as it may appear, Phoenix is particular about the components. Cocktail fruit is drained at least 24 hours before it's folded into the ambrosia, to give the dish a little chew. "Otherwise, it's all soft and boring."
Food coloring is added to give the right pink hue to the ambrosia and to bump up the yellow, if needed, in the banana pudding. As the layers come together, vanilla wafers, sliced banana and maraschino cherries are added for garnish. Phoenix calls it "creamy dreamy dessert deliciousness!"
Fusion plays a big role in Phoenix's kitchen creations. Perhaps his most famous dish is the Cherpumple, the dessert equivalent of a turducken, consisting of three pies (cherry, pumpkin and apple) baked into a three-layer cake. He created it after one Thanksgiving when "I looked in the trash can and it was filled with paper plates" from all the different desserts. "I thought, this is not so green."
He decided to merge favorite dishes in one, so guests could have a taste of everything together, minimizing waste.
Phoenix's Inchezonya is a fusion of enchiladas and lasagna — tortillas and lasagna noodles are layered with ground beef, cheese and a combination of marinara and enchilada sauces. The dish is finished with a lasagna noodle placed diagonally over the dish "like a sash on a beauty queen," the name of the dish written in green onion. "Serve with Americana pride," he says.
Rather than calling for homemade components, Phoenix is more than happy using store brands. "I try to make it very accessible." Which makes some dishes, like the massive Soda Pop Rocks cake, a little less intimidating to tackle. And if the finished product isn't perfect, so what? "I'm not expecting perfection. I'm expecting heart and soul."
Store-bought cake mix is made with 7-Up in place of the water, with plenty of food coloring added for effect. The cake is frosted in white and decorated with Pop Rocks and old-fashioned wax soda bottle candies. Slice into the cake and it looks like a Technicolor rainbow.
And if you bend your ear, you can hear the Pop Rocks noisily crackling away. It's the perfect soundtrack to a summer party of Day-Glo, unicorns and rainbows.