Cooking with the (Silent) Stars: Cecil B. DeMille’s Coleslaw

We’re back with another taste test! I am cooking my way through the 1929 Photoplay Cookbook and today’s recipe comes from one of the Biggest (capital “B”) directors in the history of cinema.

(Catch up on all my past taste tests here.)

Cecil B. DeMille doesn’t get much respect these days (let’s face it, some the scorn is deserved) but 75% of his output was silent. If you’ve never seen one of his silent films, be prepared for a revelation. They’re snappy! Fresh! Gorgeous! Lean! Do yourself a favor: grab something from the DeMille Class of 1915 that starts with the letter “C” and take a gander. I think you’ll be surprised.

The Cheat (1915)

The Captive (1915)

Carmen (1915)

Yes, yes, yes, but what about Mr. DeMille’s cookout side dish skills? Here’s his recipe:

Okay, admit it, you thought DeMille’s recipe would be something like Lark Tongues in Champagne-Truffle Sauce Flambé, served in an Egyptian sarcophagus by twelve vestal virgins.

Well, DeMille knew people would be expecting that and so he got crafty. I know this to be true because he got a similar kick out of guests who asked to see the bathrooms at his home. You see, DeMille’s films often featured elaborate bathroom scenes with crazy ginormous walk-in tubs, tropical flower petals and urns of donkey milk, that kind of thing. He was endlessly amused that his guests expected similar accommodations and were met with a plain porcelain sinks and tubs.

So, plain old coleslaw for Mr. DeMille. Okay, I’ll take that challenge. To be honest, I am not a huge fan of traditional American barbecue and picnic sides. Mayonnaise-laden potato salad, deli coleslaw, meh pasta salad? Blech! (Baked beans rock, though.) I go for sleeker, more modern sides: vinaigrette-based potato salad, broccoli slaw, sesame noodles, that kind of thing. However, I am rather fond of the humble cabbage and would never be opposed to finding a new way to enjoy it.

I was hosting a barbecue and what better time to try out some side dishes from the past? I’m ready for my coleslaw, Mr. DeMille!

Pale cabbage.

First, the cabbage. Just plain, round cabbage. I selected a pale one because coleslaw always seems to be on the pale side. I don’t have a mincer (a meat grinder thing) and am not nuts about pulverized veggies in any case, so I just sliced the cabbage into shreds. I’m pretty proud.

Behold!

I omitted the red cabbage because that stuff is expensive and the “serve on a leaf” thing that vintage recipes always include is getting old. The leaf always ends up wasted and it seems a shame.

Next, I mixed the egg, mustard and vinegar. Nobody specified prepared mustard vs. dried but I like some zip in my dishes and so I opted for prepared. Just basic French’s yellow mustard since we’re keeping things classic here.

The bubbles are where the vinegar is.
All mixed!

This next part is not well-photographed because I had company coming and I didn’t have time to stop and snap every step. I melted the butter and added the cream and flour, as instructed. Then I whisked like crazy over medium-low heat until it thickened into a basic cream sauce. Then I poured in the egg mixture in a slow and steady stream. No curdling, everything was smooth and thick. I continued stirring as the dressing cooled to prevent a skin from forming.

Umm…

A little too thick. It was more like paste than dressing. And it was bland, oh lordy was it bland. The small amounts of mustard and vinegar just was not sufficient to combat the mother lode of fats from the cream, butter and egg yolk, plus the starchy flour.

The yield was also higher than anticipated and was too much for the cabbage. It was just plain gloppy and I hate gloppy.

Glop!

So, yeah, guests were arriving and I was in trouble.

Score: 2 out of 5. Bland, bland, bland. If you want cabbage doused in heavy cream with a dash of mustard, this recipe is for you. But coleslaw needs tang and I also like some sweetness.

Dull!
Paprika back when it was used for color instead of flavor.

Because this was for company, I had to save it. My solution: a metric ton of lemon juice, salt and sugar. I also sliced up the second half of the cabbage to take care of the gloppiness. I’m not proud but it worked. Everyone ate the slaw and enjoyed it. Or at least that’s what they said.

The good news is that I LOVED the freshly-cut cabbage. No surprise that fresh veggies are yummier than the stuff sitting in the deli case but I was pleased. I will definitely be making my own slaw again soon, though I will likely use a more modern variation with plenty of tang.

P.S. DeMille’s recipe seems to be pretty much par for the course. According to my trusty 1931 Joy of Cooking, coleslaw can either be made with a French dressing (that is, a simple vinaigrette) or boiled dressing, which is similar to the DeMille version.

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4 Replies to “Cooking with the (Silent) Stars: Cecil B. DeMille’s Coleslaw”

  1. The best “where’d it all go so quickly” coleslaw I remember throwing together was made completely on the fly from a huge bowl of mystery ingredients (half-frozen green beans and diced mixed nuts had been introduced somewhere down a potluck assembly line), so can sympathize with tasting DeMIlle’s slaw and realizing it was so meh it needed an immediate and drastic rescue. One can only hope Cecil’s slaw was meant to accompany a fiery main dish in order to cool out the palate, in which case…(tiny clap) bravo.

    Food mills work nicely slicing slaw cabbage as well, I’ve found. Am I a kitchen relic to prefer one for specific jobs? Yeah, probably 😉

    1. Yes, it would take a powerful set of flavors to cut through the original. But this is Cecil, so maybe he had something up his sleeve…

      Hey, slicing veggies is an “any which way you can” sort of thing. I briefly flirted with using my mandoline but decided against it because the dishes were already piling up. :mrgreen:

  2. Had a bit of fun imagining a Powerful Flavors DeMille Dinner Menu 😀

    Geraldine’s Red Hot Tamales
    Gloria’s Gin Martinis w/Jalapeno-Stuffed Olives
    Cecil’s Coleslaw
    Jeanie’s “Sweet Heat” Cayenne Brownies

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