Retro Recipes: David Rees on Cooking With Dead Celebrities

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They're in the kitchen ... from beyond the grave. Photo: Martin: Hulton Archive/Getty Images, Davis: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images, Presley: Alan Band/Keystone/Getty Images, Chefs: iStockphoto

A strange mini-phenomenon is going on: Recipes from long-dead celebrities are resurfacing for no apparent reason. There’s Dean Martin’s spartan burger recipe, Miles Davis’s chili, and Elvis’s favorite fried chicken. We wondered how the found recipes held up as actual recipes, so we gave comedian (and amateur cook) David Rees the job of making each, with the stipulation that he report back and rank the recipes against one another.

Celebrities are just like you and me: They wear sweatpants to the coffee shop; they worry about money; and they apparently love to cook!

I was asked to test three celebrity recipes. Even before we get to the food, I can vouch for these celebrities’ celebrity-ness: musician Miles Davis, actor Dean Martin, and a fellow named Elvis Presley, a.k.a. the biggest celebrity who ever lived, a.k.a. the guy who Michele Bachmann thinks was born on the day he died, or something.

In terms of celebrity-ness, I’d put these three people up against any of the yahoos currently gracing the cover of Us Weekly. These were some heavy hitters back in their days. But did they know how to cook? I put their recipes to the ultimate test: MY MOUTH.

Recipe 1. Miles Davis’s Chili
Cooked in: Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Context: Family get-together

Miles Davis was a scary-looking trumpet player famous for turning his back to his audience because he was such a genius. The only Miles Davis album I know is called On the Corner, which an old roommate used to play constantly, and which sounded to me like elevator music in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, if Thunderdomes had elevators. (The recipe I followed was this interpretation of Miles Davis's chili concocted by Jonathan Dixon, a Culinary Institute graduate and author.)

The thing that made me nervous about this particular chili was the inclusion of beef. I’ve never been a fan of beef in chili. I make lots of vegetarian chili in the winter, and always add heaps and heaps of peanut butter to thicken it and give it “umami” (secret Japanese meaty mouth-feel). I also dump nutritional yeast flakes and hot sauce and sour cream and walnuts and corn chips in each bowl before serving, because I like eating a bunch of different junk all at once.

Anyway, I "manned up" and asked the butcher to cut me one-inch chunks of beef for the dish.

One thing to note is that the recipe calls for the chili to cook in the oven for three hours at 190 degrees. This was a subject of some debate in the test kitchen — was the recipe using Celsius? 190 degrees Celsius = 350 degrees Fahrenheit, which seemed to make more sense. We decided to go with 190 degrees Fahrenheit, and I’m not sure what good it did for the dish. We had trouble cutting the meat.

chili

I was hoping the chili would be terrible so I could say it “kind of blew.”


Definitely eat this over linguini, per the master’s inclination. It’s too soupy to stand on its own as chili. In his essay about cooking Miles Davis's chili, Jonathan Dixon talks about improvising and the spirit of jazz in cooking, and writes, “for a second, while I extemporized my way through the cooking, I swear Miles entered the room.” This did not happen for me.

Recipe 2. Elvis Presley's fried chicken
Cooked in: Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Context: Family gathering

So apparently the head chef at Google used to work with Elvis Presley’s personal chef and gleaned from him Mr. Presley’s favorite fried chicken recipe. (I guess the rumors about Elvis being a life-long adherent of the macrobiotic lifestyle aren’t true.)

I was excited/terrified to test this recipe, because I’d never fried a chicken before. All I can say is, raw chicken looks totally disgusting, and it’s even worse when you cut it open and it’s all slimy with little fatty nodules and bloodstains all over. Confession: My mom took apart the bird because she “didn’t have time” to teach me.

The amount of spices involved was crazy. Sixteen spices! Fortunately, my mom had all of them in her kitchen. I let the chicken soak in the buttermilk-spice concoction for two days. Then I made another batch of the spice concoction and added flour and put it all in a bag and shook the buttermilked chicken in it so it got covered in gunk, which I believe is an official cooking term.

Friends, I fried everything! I even fried the chicken’s back, per my mom, who hates to see food go to waste. Then I fried all the chicken’s guts, like the liver and the heart and even its "gizzards."

frying


But then the organs started exploding in the pan! It was the most dramatic thing that has ever happened to me in a kitchen. I got oil all over my arm and all over the floor and everyone was like, “What’s going on in there?” (because the exploding organs made a loud popping sound) and I was like, “I don’t know, I think I screwed up!” Experiences like this are why I never cook meat in my home; I don’t need animal body parts flying every which way.

We ate the fried chicken with potatoes, a leafy green vegetable I’m fond of called kale, a.k.a. Vitamin K, a.k.a. the Sweet Leaf, and a watermelon-tomato salad my dad made:

chicken

The watermelon-tomato salad stole the show.


I think, frankly, there were too many spices. The chicken tasted noisy, if you know what I mean. Wouldn’t it have been better just to pick, like, five spices and just focus the flavor? It reminded me of when Metallica performed a concert with a full orchestra — it’s overkill. I was worried it would be too spicy for my parents, but they had no complaints. However, everybody agreed the skin wasn’t crispy enough.

When I went in the kitchen to get more chicken, I heard my little brother complain about the kale. He’s dead to me now.

Recipe 3. Dean Martin's burgers
Cooked in: Brooklyn
Context: Small party of literary types

This was the recipe I was most skeptical of: Dean Martin, really? The guy who was always drunk on old TV shows? Before even looking at the recipe, I joked that it was probably just hamburger meat soaked in old martinis and cooked over smoldering cigarette remains.

Turns out I wasn't too far off.

Esquire thinks the recipe — hunks of beef served alongside whiskey — is what "'effortless cool' really looks like ... No custom Pat LaFrieda meat blend needed. No brioche bun, fancy homemade condiments, or artisinal cheeses, either. Just meat. And bourbon. Genius.” I had my doubts.

The recipe calls for the meal to be served on a TV tray, but I didn’t have access to one, so I just served it on a plate. I know: I’m a sell-out. But I can’t imagine it affected the flavor that much. Plus, it makes me sad to think about ol’ Dino sitting alone in his mansion getting drunk, eating bunless hamburgers off of a TV tray, even if it does somehow make him a genius.

burgers

The greens might mean I'm less cool than Dean Martin, but I bet you could polish silverware on the inside of my colon.


I have to say, this was a pretty good dish! I ate three portions. That is, I ate three hamburgers and had three glasses of chilled bourbon. I followed the meal with ginger sorbet and a fistful of Excedrin.

I went to bed feeling content and “retro.” I felt like a real man! God was in His heaven and all was right with the world.

But the next morning — this morning — I woke up with a tight stabbing sensation in my stomach. Is this what it was like being in the Rat Pack? In retrospect, I probably shouldn't have bought my beef at a downscale Brooklyn supermarket, because now I'm afraid I have E. coli.

What's the point of being all manly and eating nothing but meat and booze if you're just going to wake up feeling pregnant — like a woman?

Final Ranking:
1. Miles Davis chili
2. Dean Martin hamburger (provided you only eat it once a year and are prepared to lose a full day of productivity in the aftermath)
3. Elvis Presley fried chicken

Important Update! I just received this e-mail from my mom:

“Just wanted you to know that the (Miles Davis) chili is better after the first day when the sauce has thickened and the meat had a chance to tenderize a bit … However, we decided that it certainly was not worth the trouble and not better than my chili which doesn’t take nearly as long nor does it destroy the kitchen!!!! [PERSONAL FAMILY ITEMS REDACTED] The (Elvis) chicken is, by far, a more interesting and novel dish. Hugs to all. It was wonderful having all of you here.”

So my mom prefers the Elvis fried chicken to the Miles Davis chili. But given the state of my stomach, I can’t even think about fried chicken without feeling faint.

David Rees is an artisanal pencil sharpener.