I'll Have the Banana Pancake Flambé Stonehenge
The creepy joy of cooking with Vincent Price.
A cookbook titled A Treasury of Great Recipes sounds innocuous. What's frightening about noodle casserole? Why, nothing ... except when it's cooked by Vincent Price.
For those who know Price from classic 1950s horror films like The Fly and The House of Wax—or who were imprinted with his Batman cameos and Saturday-morning commercials for Stay Alive and Hangman—it's odd to discover that he and his wife, Mary, were also gourmets. Thanks to tutorial LPs from the 1970s, you can still find clips of Vincent discoursing upon Viennese stuffed eggs floating about online; and the inevitable Youtube mashup assures that you'll never hear the words chunky peanut butter the same way again. But the Prices' culinary fame rests primarily upon their 1965 collection, A Treasury of Great Recipes, which culled recipes and reproduced menus from top restaurants around the world. Everyone who owns this volume swears by it for one reason above all others: The Treasury is a shockingly (terrifyingly?) good example of 1960s cuisine.
Not the tastiest era for cooking, you say? Perhaps. But the charm of old cookbooks is that while only die-hards would seriously try cooking from Fannie Farmer * or Mrs. Beeton, or even a first edition Larousse, each remains a perfect time capsule of its era. When Hannah Glasse tells you in 1747 how to prepare Pigeons Transmogrified, how can one not conjure up a scene of gin-soaked cooks and crooked alchemists? It's that same sense of time travel that jacks up the price of Treasury to $40 or $50 a copy. Thrill to kodachromes of Vincent brooding in a wine cellar, having bricked a victim alive in its walls! Scream to the exquisite kitsch of the Prices in formal wear, serving champagne in their RV: The campy meets the campsite!
Flipping through illustrations will, of course, take you only so far. To truly travel back requires a day at home of cooking à la Vincent. My wife and I—she being the Mary to my Vincent—began our day of all-Price cooking with one of his great culinary loves: pancakes. They'd already come a long way from the days of a 1935 cookbook like Someone to Dinner, where the recipe for crêpesSavannah reads, in full, "Pancakes, the ordinary size, served with hot maple syrup." No such fainthearted stuff for Vincent: The name Banana Pancake Flambé Stonehenge alone murders all culinary competitors. You wrap sautéed bananas into crêpes, vigorously stab strips of bacon atop them, and flambé it all in banana liqueur. It's a dish that rewards sleepy incompetence: If you don't flambé it properly, the pancakes immediately soak up copious amounts of hooch, leaving you woozily imitating lines from The Abominable Dr. Phibes while you twirl a villainous moustache and choose your victims for lunch.
And lunch was easily plotted. As it turns out, Price was rather partial to ballpark hot dogs, and the full-page photo of the horror icon at Dodger Stadium is all the reason you need to fire up the grill. "There is nothing more soul-satisfying than the first succulent bite into the juicy frankfurter," he writes—and if you can read that without hearing it in Price's most fey voice, you're beyond hope.
His own recipe for stuffed frankfurters is straightforward—slit franks down the middle, lay on "sharp cheese" and sautéed onions, and then wind around a strip of bacon. Price is on the mustard side of the great condiment schism, so in the interest of period detail, we sampled franks with the holy mustard trinity of 1965: French's Yellow, Gulden's Brown, and Grey Poupon. And while our other period choice of oily melted cheddar didn't quite work—you might as well use a more complex melting cheese like aged Gruyère—Grey Poupon was clearly the right choice in condiments. Plus, you get to imagine Vincent Price asking for it between limousines. (And if you can't imagine Price asking for mustard, Stephen Fry will do it for you quite brilliantly.)
As we paged through the Treasury and sought out our dinner, we drank Price's recipe for the Hotel Hana-Maui's Hanaho rum punch. A mix of lime juice, pineapple juice, crushed ice, and dark rum, topped with a maraschino cherry, it's to be served in zombie glasses. (Need you ask why?) It's refreshing, if lacking in the blandishments that our appletinied era has come to expect. The presence of an orange wedge somehow gives it less the feel of the tropics than that of a late breakfast gone to alcoholic dissipation.
A dinner of Tagliatelle Verdi Gratinate al Prosciutto proved to be a period piece indeed. It's a green noodle casserole recipe that Price procured from Harry's Bar in Venice, and though the prosciutto cuts through the heavy sauce with a savory saltiness, it's still an exceedingly rich dish. Price's sauce essentially calls on you to make béchamel and then add an unhealthy dollop of cream. Putting away an entire portion of this gives you a sense of utter satiety that says: I will die of a heart attack during the Ford administration.
But then, each era, I suppose, has it own concept of richness. These days we pack away more calories than Price's generation did, but to our tongues it is their food that feels decadent and heavy-handed. Nowhere is this paradox better demonstrated than the recent BBC series Supersizers Go ..., which marches television presenters Giles Coren and Sue Perkins through seven days of period food. Watching them stagger through an Elizabethan week in a haze of alcoholic hippocras, overdose on mutton, and nearly become diabetic on marchpane—all while suffering crushing coffee-deprived headaches—is a joy that American audiences can still see hints of only online. But the joke's on us: At the end of the week, both hosts were several kilos lighter.
We finished the day, inevitably, with our own era's dietary weakness: dessert. A Treasury recipe for Scandinavian fruit soup sounds promising in the abstract; closer inspection, however, reveals that it consists of stewed prunes and apricots with a ladling of thick cream. I don't know how Scandinavians occupy themselves after dinner, but traditionally stewed prunes and cream were served in brothels. The ghastly little fruit was considered efficacious against syphilis. Alas, these days the only thing eating a prune prevents is the desire to eat more prunes. Yet the accompanying Swedish cream, a slightly lumpy egg-based concoction that lands somewhere between English custard and rice pudding, was simply lovely. Served overfresh plums and apricots, it would be just right.
Paul Collins teaches creative writing at Portland State University, and his latest book is The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Follow him on Twitter.