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Celebrity cookery

Throwing the perfect dinner party with the help of some famous people — and Sissydude

11.29.2012

Cooks and chefs have really become major celebrities, haven’t they? Everywhere you look on TV someone is yelling at you — in some ridiculously fake kitchen — about how much he or she loves red velvet cake or how acai syrup is a healthy substitute for sweetener in your homemade lemonade (made with fair-trade organic Meyer lemons, of course). As a child I really dug Celebrity Cooks, Baking with Julia, The Galloping Gourmet and Wok with Yan. Nowadays, save for Martha Stewart, Jamie Oliver and Ina Garten (the Barefoot Contessa), I’m not that fond of most cooking shows.

As much as I loved watching Nigella Lawson lick cake batter off her eggbeaters, any recipe of hers I’ve tried has been a complete dud. Don’t even start me on how much I despise Rachael fucking Ray. She’s like a gym teacher teaching geography . . . useless.

Cookbooks, however, make me very happy indeed . . . food magazines and blogs, too. Cupcakes! Quinoa! Rapini! There’s food porn a-plenty. I have my favourite sites bookmarked and rows of shelves crammed with new and vintage cookbooks and treasured family recipe cards.

As much as I think that buying local produce is brilliant, grass-fed beef is a good thing and avocados make great facemasks, I always long for mindless, heartfelt celebrity cookbooks. Not “important” ghostwritten cookbooks like Alicia Silverstone’s vegan bit,  Kind Diet (ughhh), or Gwyneth Paltrow’s soft-lit Goop preciousness. I don’t want ethical recipes. I want celebrities who are real cooks and aren’t afraid to throw in a can of tuna or a few cubes of Velveeta cheese when needed. Celebrities who know the importance of seasoning salt and canned pie filling. There’s no Paula Deen irony. It’s for real, y’all!

Patti LaBelle’s 1999 opus, LaBelle Cuisine: Recipes to Sing About, is a pure delight:  African-American home-cooking classics like Okra, Corn and Tomato Stew, Aunt Mary’s Philadelphia Buttercake, and Over the Rainbow Macaroni and Cheese. I’ve made each of these, and I can tell you they all tasted mighty fine (and were super easy to prepare). And, yes, there’s a cup of Velveeta in her Friends of Dorothy Mac and Cheese.

What makes LaBelle’s book so special is the stories she shares. When I saw a recipe for Sardines Sublime I cringed. But the story that accompanied it was a jaw dropper. In the 1960s, when LaBelle travelled the country as Patti and the Bluebells (an amazing girl-group foursome), “a lot of restaurants wouldn’t serve black people.” The girls took their own rations on the road and would prepare a dish very similar to Sardines Sublime when hunger struck. You don’t get this kind of depth in the pages of Larousse Gastronomique.

For pure visual pleasure nothing beats Sophia Loren’s 1971 masterpiece, In Cucina Con Amore (In the Kitchen with Love, published in English as Eat with Me). Ms Loren apparently wrote the recipes herself, from her room on the 18th floor of the Hotel Intercontinental. I’ve never even bothered to read the recipes. It’s all about the pictures of Sophia posing seductively with a giant wooden spoon and fork or looking fierce as she poses with a big wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano. It’s beyond camp goodness from Sophia “everything you see, I owe to spaghetti” Loren.

The 1973 Pearl’s Kitchen: An Extraordinary Cookbook by Pearl Bailey reflects the singer, actress and dancer’s thrifty, down-home cooking style. And more importantly it showcases her wit. Her recipes read like you’re in her kitchen and she’s got things to tell you between sips of sherry. Here’s an excerpt from her Pork Chops with Apple Greens: “I had a dinner a few nights ago that was more exciting, actually sexier, than a best-selling novel. What, you may ask, does sex have to do with food? Darlin’, I am not going into that right now. Just let me tell you that what got me so excited was pork chops, buttered rice and Mama’s cabbage.”

Another amusing book is Vincent and Mary Price’s 1965 opus A Treasury of Great Recipes, a compilation of recipes from restaurants all around the globe, along with a few Price family favourites. The somewhat dated recipes include Bookbinder Snapper Soup, Banana Pancake Flambé Stonehenge, Hotel Hana-Maui’s Hanaho Rum Punch, and the Dark and Handsome Mousse for Dark and Handsome Men. The sun-drenched Kodachromes feature the Prices serving dinner to friends in castles, wine cellars and even in their motor home. Pure class.

My prized celebrity cookbook has to be Loretta Lynn’s 2004 masterwork, You’re Cookin’ It Country (My Favorite Recipes And Memories). Reading stories about possum, hog killing, pickling greens and The Dinah Shore Show really turns my crank. So much so that a few years back I was inspired to invite a few friends over to my house for a Loretta dinner party.

The snack before dinner was Taste of the Orient Party Mix, which was lacklustre. A mix of chow mein noodles, rice cereal, peanuts, celery salt and soy sauce did not really tickle the taste buds.

For dinner I chose the Honey Glazed Carrots, Patchwork Quilt Rice (basically, a pack of Uncle Ben’s long grain and wild rice mix with five cups of finely chopped apples, onions, mushrooms, peppers, carrots and celery). The main dish was Creamy Lemon Chicken, which was fried chicken breast baked in a mixture of sour cream, mayonnaise, lemon juice and cheddar cheese.

I expected I would have to phone Pizza Pizza when I served this to my guests, but lo and behold if the dinner wasn’t delicious! It was truly one of the greatest evenings . . . drinking wine, telling stories, listening to old Loretta tunes and eating her culinary delights. Truly magical.

So next time you’re at a flea market or a bookstore browsing the cookbook aisle, don’t dismiss Mrs Bridges’ Upstairs, Downstairs Cookery Book; Cookin’ with Coolio; or Naomi’s Home Companion (Judd, that is). It may be the basis for your next unforgettable dinner party. —Sissydude

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