I have to admit it, I have an addiction. I love, love, love celebrity cookbooks from the good old days. Quirky, zany and often inedible, the recipes of the stars are an intriguing window into the early days of celebrity culture.
As you may already know, I am cooking my way through the 1929 Photoplay cookbook with a few detours along the way. That slim volume started my obsession with all things celebrity and food-oriented.
Celebrity cookbooks were sometimes sold in the traditional manner but they were also sometimes used as publicity giveaways for everything from Norge refrigerators to Bisquick mix. The most frequent format was an anthology of recipes from assorted film folk but there were also a few stars like Zasu Pitts or Bebe Daniels who ventured into solo publication. He’s a little late for the silent era but I would be remiss if I neglected to mention Vincent Price as the gold standard for golden age celebrity cookbooking.
Let’s take a whirlwind tour of these fascinating time capsules and discover the secret of their appeal.
The most obvious appeal of these recipes is the sheer variety and insanity that they display. Victor McLaglen’s chili made with a cup of flour, Anna Sten’s teetering stacked sandwiches, there’s even a recipe for ice water. And poor Evelyn Brent clearly did not foresee any issues with the name of her pasta dish.
They are sometimes revealing
I don’t believe that these recipes were solely the inventions of the stars. In fact, I think the vast majority were invented by editing boards or at the very least contributed by domestic employees. In short, I do not happen to believe that Bing Crosby or his wife ever toiled over a plate of hot Bisquick.
However, some of the entries are charmingly frank. Take Clara Bow, for example.
Clara Bow made no claims on the title of domestic goddess and was perfectly happy to credit the person paid to do her cooking. Good for her!
They contain buried treasure
You know what’s really great? Sometimes, these celebrities (or their cooks) really know what they are doing and we moderns discover some delicious forgotten meal. I highly recommend William S. Hart’s summer squash, Anna May Wong’s savory pancakes and Carol Dempster’s highly buttered peas. Of course, to find these recipes, you have to make things like tomato aspic and Joan Crawford’s banana salad…
Obviously, these books have been out of print since before my parents were gleams in their parents’ eyes. You can get copies on eBay, in used bookshops and the usual sources for rare books. Happy hunting!
This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project. Be sure to read the other fab posts.
Fun stuff. I think the first celebrity cookbooks I ever became aware of were Victor Sen Yung’s Great Wok Cookbook and Richard Deacon’s microwave cookbook. They both came out in the 70s.
Yes indeed, celebrity cookbooks have a long and proud tradition. My earliest one is from 1916 but I am sure there are earlier examples.
I’m up for anything to do with Bisquick.
It’s a pretty fun little cookbook. Each celebrity has a themed meal with Bisquick-based main dishes. Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Warren William… Pretty much 1930s in one booklet.
You know, the Bisquick cookbook appeals to me to – at least, it sounds far more digestible than Joan Crawford’s Banana Salad. (Bananas + Mayo + Peanuts???)
You’re created a real dilemma for me. I have put myself on a strict book-buying diet…but…it wouldn’t hurt to just LOOK at vintage celebrity cookbooks, would it…?
Well, if it helps, the Bisquick book is super easy to find for less than $10 USD and it’s tiny. 😉
Hi Fritzi. I always enjoy your star recipe posts. They remind me of the way that tastes change over the years. I get the same impression from menus from my grandfather’s restaurant, which closed in 1963. Sweetbreads (note to innocent people: NOT bread), pot roast, tongue, fruit salad (probably out of a can).
I don’t think any nation has undergone such a culinary change as the US has between the 1920s-1970s and now. Though I must admit an enormous taste for tongue, particularly on a corn tortilla with onion and cilantro. Yum!
I don’t think even the celebrities’ cooks were involved in the process, I think these books were completely made up by an editorial cometee.
But I agree that they are glimpses into their era life and especially their era ‘ideas’ about life.
Fascinating stuff 🙂
I think you’re probably right in the majority of the cases. One star gave the game away totally when she added that she had never made the recipe herself but heard it was good.
Spaghetti la Fascisti makes perfect sense: Just take a bundle of spaghetti, tie a string around it, then stick an axe in the middle before boiling! (Note: Never search with Ethiopian food).
Or the chef could start by having a mad Irishwoman shoot him/her in the nose 😉 (Was that an obscure enough reference?)
*search=serve, dunno how I made that mistake!
Curse the autocorrect gremlins 😉
I love this topic! Stars + cookbooks=endlessly entertaining. Vintage cuisine is fascinating. I own several old cookbooks, but never use them for what they were intended for since my husband is a chef. Although I swear by Audrey Hepburn’s spaghetti al pomodoro recipe. Great post!
Thank you! Yes, having a chef on hand would definitely dull one’s desire for Bing’s Bisquick. 😉
I often see these recipes in the old fan magazines when doing research and they’ve always made me curious. This was a fun read and I will definitely be checking out your posts on cooking your way through the 1929 Photoplay cookbook!
Thanks so much!
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