Frank DeCaro, the author of “The Dead Celebrity Cookbook,” is contemplating a bite of Greer Garson’s capirotada.
Dressed in a red-and-white checked shirt and a red apron with one red and one black oven mitt by his side, the former “Daily Show” film critic and Sirius Radio talk show host looks somewhat befuddled. He pushes his thick, black-rimmed glasses up on his nose and chews slowly.
The dish by the Oscar-winning star of the 1942 film “Mrs. Miniver” is a strangely archaic mix of white bread, Colby cheese, raisins and sugar-cinnamon syrup. DeCaro baked it alongside a tray of Katharine Hepburn’s brownies until it puffed into a mass of gooey cheese and gloppy bread that is reminding him of one of his favorite TV-show episodes.
“I got to the center part where the white bread has become that thing that attacks Spock in the middle of ‘Star Trek,’ ” he says. “It wasn’t an alien life form, it was Greer Garson’s capirotada.”
But culinary perfection is not the point of DeCaro’s recent book, which features more than 145 recipes from deceased celebrities. Helping a new generation of pop-culture fans rediscover them and their work is his goal.
To that end, DeCaro spent more than 15 years collecting and cataloging these recipes. He scoured flea markets, bookstores and yard sales and uncovered them in obscure places like microwave instruction manuals, ladies’ club pamphlets and grocery store fliers. The recipes are interesting but it’s tough to discern whether they were actually made by the stars themselves or simply manufactured by their publicists.
The result includes Humphrey Bogart’s coconut Spanish cream; Rock Hudson’s cannoli; Charlton Heston’s cheese tuna puff; Johnny Cash’s pan-fried okra; Elizabeth Taylor’s chicken with avocado and mushrooms; Anthony Perkins’ tuna salad; Buddy Hackett’s Chinese chili; Billy De Wolfe’s codfish balls; and Eartha Kitt’s chicken wings.
“The only thing irreverent about this book is the title,” says DeCaro. “It’s 150 love letters, is what it is. I’m crazy about these celebrities.”
Each recipe is accompanied by a brief, cleverly written biography and a description of what distinguishes the particular featured dish. “The Dead Celebrity Cookbook” stands as a fascinating document that combines America’s gustatory evolution from canned goods and frozen meat to organic, sustainable fare with our fascination with celluloid celebrity.
“So maybe she wasn’t mother of the year, but Joan Crawford was responsible for some of the most indelible performances ever put on film,” reads the entry for Crawford’s poached salmon, which calls for an astounding two cups of mayonnaise for its dressing.
In a similar vein, there’s the caloric majesty of Harriet Nelson’s favorite chicken. It calls for one can of cream of chicken soup, one can of cream of mushroom soup and one can of cream of celery soup.
“When I initially tried the dish, my first thought was, ‘This should come with a defibrillator,’ ” DeCaro muses of the paean to midcentury American cooking by the “Ozzie and Harriet” star. “But when the temperature dips, it’s incredibly homey and comforting. I feel like it’s a style of cooking that’s ripe for re-evaluation, not necessarily revival, but re-evaluation.”
The idea for “The Dead Celebrity Cookbook” was inspired by DeCaro’s favorite college party: a dead celebrity fete he attended as an undergraduate at Northwestern University. He went dressed as 1970s Grape-Nuts spokesman Euell Gibbons.
“The cookbook is really a compendium of all of my interests. My interest in pop culture, my love of food, my adoration of old movies, my nostalgia and my desire to be current,” he explains. “You really should know on whose shoulders our current entertainers are standing.”
That means understanding how Yvonne De Carlo inspired a whole generation of Goth fans through her portrayal of Lily on “The Munsters,” and appreciating her deeply weird recipe for “exotic chicken ecstasy” with its off-kilter mix of chutney powder, soy sauce, sherry and Chinese cabbage.
In a section of the book titled “Pool Party on Sunset Boulevard,” there is a recipe by Gloria Swanson with the unappetizing name of “potassium broth.” (Swanson was an early and famous health-food advocate. )
DeCaro has tested only about 50 of the recipes thus far, but he has plans to plow through the whole book. Most of his research up to this point was spent verifying the film-and-television trivia in the book.
For example, in the entry that serves as an introduction for the “Pool Party on Sunset Boulevard” section, which pays homage to the 1950 film directed by Billy Wilder that begins with William Holden’s character, Joe Gillis, being shot dead before crashing into a pool, DeCaro originally wrote that the Joe Gillis cocktail would be two shots and a splash.
“Then I re-watched it and realized it was three shots and a splash,” says DeCaro happily.