Frank DeCaro talks to OutSmart’s Blase DiStefano about how he started collecting dead celebrities recipes after a really great party, his family (and their cooking), his husband (and his not cooking), coming out, being bullied, Betty White, nine meatballs, and much more.
Interview by Blase DiStefano • Photos by Erica Berger
Click here for dead-celebrity recipes from Liberace, Raymond Burr, Lucille Ball, and Bea Arthur.
Maybe you read his suburban memoir, A Boy Named Phyllis (1996). Or maybe you watched his hilarious movie critiques on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (1996–2003). Or maybe you read his “Style over Substance” column in The New York Times (1997–99). Or maybe you currently read his “Now Remember” column on CBS’s Watch! magazine or listen to his live national call-in program on Sirius XM Satellite Radio.
If so, you know that Frank DeCaro is funny no matter what he’s writing about. So bring on The Dead Celebrity Cookbook.
You don’t cook, you say? No matter. Ignore the recipes and read the wonderful bios of celebs such as Roddy McDowall, Dusty Springfield, Paul Lynde, Anthony Perkins, and Agnes Moorehead—all gay, but they’re not even in the “gay” chapter! For the “Gay Bash” chapter he serves up Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, and Wayland Flowers, among others. A total of 145 celebrities, gay and not gay, but all quite…uh, dead.
You do like to cook? Check out the 150-plus recipes, including Miss Peggy Lee’s Jade Salad, Alfred Hitchcock’s Quiche Lorraine, Eartha Kitt’s Chicken Wings, Madeline Kahn’s Foot Cookies, Rue McClanahan’s Non-Dairy Cheesecake, and Rock Hudson’s Cannoli (“For decades,” DeCaro says, “I’ve wanted to share my fantasy of wrapping my lips around Rock Hudson’s Cannoli.”)
At the end of each of the 25 chapters, DeCaro suggests ways to enjoy these artists’ greatest works “after you’ve put the dishes in the Maytag.”
OutSmart talked to DeCaro one Sunday night after he had put his dishes in the Maytag.
Blase DiStefano: First of all, what a fun book.
Frank DeCaro: Well, thank you so much.
Where did the idea come from?
We had a dead-celebrity party when I was in college, and that kind of planted the seed for the whole thing. I went to Northwestern in the early ’80s, and a dancer friend came up with this idea. We all went dressed as dead celebrities, and we had everyone there from Sid Vicious to Ernest Hemingway. I went as a naturalist named Euell Gibbons, who was a spokesperson for Grape Nuts, and it was a hoot. It’s still in the top three parties of my life.
What started the dead-celebrity recipes was that over the years I became a very eager flea-market shopper, and an eBay shopper as well. I started collecting all these celebrity recipes. If it was an out-of-print cookbook or a flyer from a supermarket, or a magazine that had them in it, I started collecting them. It was basically, “Do something with it or get cast on Hoarders.”
[Laughs] That is so cool. Did you do any cooking today?
I did in fact cook this weekend, which was fun. I was really in the mood. None of the things I cooked, unfortunately, were from the book. I made a lovely pork and corn chili that was wonderful and a pecan coffee cake.
How often do you cook?
We’re in New York. We eat out almost every night, so I don’t cook that often, except for when I was working on the book, and then I was cooking things as often as I could.
I know there’s no way you could have cooked everything in that book.
No, I wish I could say that I did, but in the short amount of time I had to put it together, I wouldn’t have been able to do my radio show. Some of the recipes are wonderful, like Liberace’s Sticky Buns, and some of the recipes are ghastly, like Isabelle Sanford’s Boston Chicken, which turns out to be kind of yucky. I cooked as many of them as I possibly could. At least in every chapter, there was one or two I tried.
When you were growing up, did your mother and father cook much?
Both actually, my mother more than my father. When it was a special occasion, it was wonderful, but when it was a school night, it was kinda convenience food.
You’re Italian, right?
Yes, but we ate American. Unfortunately, it was a lot more meatloaf and roast chicken…
What about spaghetti and meatballs?
That was like a Sunday thing. But during the week it was very American and not always wonderful. My mother will haunt me for saying that. When she really took the time to make something, it was wonderful. She was a really good baker always, but when it was a matter of getting dinner on the table, it was not exactly the tastiest.
We didn’t have that much Italian food during the week, either. But on Sunday we had spaghetti and meatballs. Then we had spaghetti and meatballs that night for dinner, and then we had spaghetti and meatballs for lunch on Monday.
[Laughs] That’s a lot of spaghetti and meatballs. Without trying, my mother always made nine meatballs. She was like, “I don’t know why, but I always make nine.” And it wasn’t that she had a little left over and added onto one. She just would come up with nine meatballs. We could never explain what that was about.
Did you have any brothers and sisters?
No. So, I got all the meatballs. Not really.
[Laughs] Was there anything that was made when you were younger that you really liked a lot?
Anything my grandmother cooked was wonderful. My grandmother lived downstairs, so I would sneak down and eat with her, because it always tasted wonderful. She could make a roast chicken with a can of peas, and it tasted better than anything that was going on with whatever my parents were making. I think part of it is, my grandmother used a saltshaker and my parents didn’t. My father insisted—because he’d had a heart attack—that we all eat bland food. So there was no saltshaker allowed. And it was ghastly.
My grandmother lived next door, and we went over there a lot. She made pizza from scratch.
Ohhhhh, my Italian grandmother used to do that.
And she grew tomatoes in her backyard. I used to eat those tomatoes right from the vine.
Right, either just with a saltshaker or not. A tomato sandwich with a little mayo and you’re like, Oh my God!
Did anyone besides you taste the food you cooked from the recipes in the book?
Yeah, you kind of get as many people as you can to taste them. There were some things I really loved that my tasters weren’t crazy about. And then there was Brian Keith’s recipe for Good Chicken Gus. I thought it was delicious, and my tasters all thought it was too plain. Meanwhile, they loved William Holden’s Hamburgers à la Hong Kong, and I thought they were dreadful. I was like, “Ecchhh.” And everyone that’s had them thought they were wonderful. I can’t explain how everyone loves them but me.
Did you have to get permission to use the recipes?
From what we were able to ascertain, legally, if you use a list of ingredients, it’s not copyrightable. So you can borrow a list of ingredients, and you re-write the language of the recipe and go from there. Hopefully, no one will think I’m trying to capitalize on their deceased relatives, but more just trying to keep their names alive. My goal is less “Oh boy, you’ve got to make these recipes,” and more “You’ve got to know who these people are.”
That’s exactly what I got from it. And it was a fun read.
Thank you. It’s the most “me” project I’ve ever done. It’s my sensibility throughout, and no one got in my way, which is really nice. They let me pick the photos I wanted. They let me organize it exactly the way I wanted it. No one said, “Oh, this stuff doesn’t make any sense” or “Why would you include names no one really knows?” Well, because they meant something to me and I think they should be known.
So what celebrities would you want to die so you can use their recipes in the sequel? [Laughs] Thank heaven there are enough previously deceased people that I don’t have to wish anyone dead. Although, I was having a field day annoying my now-husband by saying, “That Betty White’s got to go.” I’ve got every Golden Girl but her. She’s got to go in time. But she missed the deadline, so now I hope she lives to 150.
I take it your husband is a Betty White fan.
He worships her. We all do, we’re crazy about her. But I just kept teasing him. I said, “I’ve got her recipe all ready to go! We can get it right in there!” It was very fun flustering him about all that. [Editor’s note: To see just how much they worship Betty White, see below for their tribute to her, “Betty White Lines.”]
I had a Zsa Zsa one, but you have to keep your Zsa Zsa one on a string, because, my God. But good for her. Now I hope they all live to 150. If you’re not going to die conveniently in time to be in the book, then don’t die at all.
[Laughs] Well, until you write the sequel.
[Laughs] I have a file with 125 recipes ready to go.
Oh my god.
Yeah, I’m excited. If I can turn this baby into a brand, I’m going to do that.
Do you have a recipe from Suzanne Pleshette?
No, I don’t have one for her yet.
I’ll try to find one. For some reason, I had this thing about her. I don’t know what it was. I’m gay, but I tell you…
It’s that voice. That smoky voice. I had heard that she had a mouth like a sailor. I met her once—I was interviewing Doris Roberts, the actor, and we were at an Italian restaurant in Los Angeles, and she was at another table with her husband, Tom Poston, and she came over, and every other word was the F word. She was delightful with that smoky voice. Couldn’t be prettier or sexier and every other word was F. It was so funny. It was everything I hoped for.
Loved her. I never talked to her, but I wrote an article about her. A friend of mine was putting together a little newsletter, and I wrote an exhaustive article about her for it. And I thought, Well, why don’t I just send it to her? And she sent me a note. I was like, Oh my God!
Oh, I love it! That’s so great!
But when you think about it, Suzanne Pleshette would do something like that.
I’d hope, yeah. I was so glad that’s the way the story ended. [Both laugh] It was like, “I never heard back from her!”
My favorite person ever in show business was Yvonne DeCarlo [Lily Munster on The Munsters]. I never got to meet her in person, but I did get to talk to her on the phone, and I nearly died. It was so exciting. I was just thrilled. I thought of her as my TV mom—everyone has one of those, and she was mine. I was crazy about her. But I never could find a recipe. Then last Christmas, a friend of mine who lives in Detroit, who’s an antiques dealer, sent me a Christmas card. I opened it up, and inside the Christmas card was a folded flyer from probably the early ’70s, and it had a Post-it note on it that said, “I heard you were doing a cookbook. Hope this helps.” It was Yvonne DeCarlo’s Exotic Chicken Ecstasy recipe! It was in the book immediately.
That worked out beautifully. You mentioned your husband. How long have you been together?
We were married in August on our 15th anniversary.
I’m so jealous!
[Laughs] Yeah, it was really swell. I’d never thought about really getting married, and then when it passed here, and I was watching it streaming from Albany—the vote and everything—I was sitting here weeping. I was, “Oh my God, I guess I do want to get married.” So we got married on the air, on Sirius XM radio, on my radio show. And it was great. It’s funny—I look down and I’ve got my gold Tiffany ring and I’m very happy.
What’s his name?
His name is Jim Colucci, and he is the author of The Q Guides to The Golden Girls. We’re a TV-watching household.
I don’t know that I ever missed a single episode of The Golden Girls.
Jim adores that show. He writes about television for CBS’s Watch! magazine. He went off to L.A. tonight to do some interviews. So I said, “Fine, get the hell out of my house. I have work to do.” [Both laugh] “I love you, now go away.”
Thanksgiving is coming up. What will you be giving thanks for on Thanksgiving?
I’m thankful that Governor Cuomo helped make it possible for me to marry my husband. I’m thankful that I had as much time with my parents as I did and they both lived to a ripe old age, which is nice. I’m thankful that in this economy I’m gainfully employed. A big knock knock on wood. And to borrow a phrase from Mel Brooks’s 2000-Year-Old-Man, “I’m glad that my heart has not attacked me!” [Both laugh]
When you were growing up, were there family gatherings for the holidays?
My cousins had a very big family, so even though I was an only child, there were five of them, so we would always see them on the holidays. We pulled out all the stops for the holidays, and the food was particularly good then. That was really when everyone really did their thing. And as Italians, you can’t do better than Christmas. You might as well start making food now.
The best part of it to me was always leftovers. I love leftovers. And that’s the one thing I don’t like about not cooking on Thanksgiving and being a guest instead: the lack of leftovers. I’m the one who is taking the leftovers of a turkey and stuffing and all the vegetables and creating layered shepherd’s pies out of them and working my magic with leftovers. It’s “Ooh, what can we do with this?”
Does Jim help you cook?
Ohhh, the worst cook you’ve ever met in your life! The man cannot boil water, and he’s a very picky eater. No matter how old he gets, his taste buds are still eight years old. [Both laugh]
How old are you?
I’m just starting to push 50, but not quite yet.
Oh, you’re young. I’m 64.
64! Oh my goodness, I would never have guessed! You have enthusiasm. I’m already bitter. I’ll be 49 on November 6.
Going back now, when did you come out?
I came out when I was 16, so it was 400 years ago. [Both laugh] I had a boyfriend in high school who I was crazy about, and we sort of came out together.
How did your parents react?
They were typically Italian and operatic at the beginning, and said absolutely horrible things, but later reacted beautifully.
Did you tell them when you were 16?
Oh, I told my mother when I was about 17, and I told my father shortly thereafter.
So they reacted typically. How long did it take…
Well, I thought it would take them a couple of months to get used to the idea. It took them about 13 years. But other than that… [Both laugh] But when they finally came around, they came around in a big way.
And they were both crazy about my husband. They were to the point that my father said, “That boy is a godsend. Don’t f–k it up!” I was, “Okay, Pop.” I would say he’s the son they never had.
[Laughs] When you were growing up, did you get bullied much?
Oh, it was terrible. I wrote a book about my childhood experience [A Boy Named Phyllis]. Yeah, I got called a fag every single day. I got snow days off, but other than that, it was pretty awful. And I was pushed around, but it was never a life-threatening kind of thing. It was emotional torture, and horrible. But I was like, I’m getting the hell out of here. It’s funny, I ended up kind of making my peace with the town, and I spend a lot of time there now. Someone said to me today, and I was joking with them, “Why don’t you buy that house?” and they said, “Too many bad memories.” And I said, “Really? I go back to my childhood home all the time.” I’m there every weekend. It doesn’t look like it did when I was a kid. It looks like me, as an adult. It’s more my taste now.
Where were you born?
In northern New Jersey, a town of about 20,000 people. Maybe about 12,000. I don’t know. Because it’s New Jersey, everything is so densely populated. It’s a small town, but it’s a small town next to about a million other small towns. It was not isolated. It was 18 miles outside the city.
Weren’t you brought up Catholic?
Did religion cause any problems?
No. My parents were very much cafeteria Catholics. They picked and chose. So that made it kind of easy. Sin was not that big a deal in my house. We didn’t talk about that a lot.
Did you go to church?
Yeah, we went to church, but it was more a social thing than it was a religious kind of thing.
When you went to church and the priest gave the sermon…what the priest said didn’t affect you?
Oh yeah, it did, certainly, when they would go on kind of an antigay diatribe and the homily. Yeah, that would really upset me. But I think what upset me more was not once did a priest lay a hand on me! Nothing! I’m telling you, I couldn’t get arrested. It was nothing. That was much worse scarring than anything they said from the pulpit!
[Laughs] When you need them, where are they?
I know. Behind every kid that got touched there’s a little fat kid with glasses that didn’t get touched. And I feel worse for him. I really do. ’Cause that little kid was me. Oh, I was like, “Come onnnn!”
Tell me a bit about your radio show.
It’s on a 24-hour gay channel. Sirius has been terrific. It’s such an intimate relationship with the listeners. They are with you so much of the time. You’re right there. In some ways, it’s even more intimate than television.
And how long has this been going on?
Seven and a half years. In February it’ll be eight years that we’ve been doing the radio show. In the beginning it was toiling in obscurity, but it’s really come around. Now we have a fairly large, very loyal fan base, and the people are fascinating. You find out Harvey Fierstein is listening every day, or any other number of actors and performers. I’m always kind of blown away when people I’ve seen on Broadway are listening in. And people from TV shows who aren’t out completely will tell me, “Oh my God, I listen to your show every day.” They’ll say, “I’m not out in public, but God I love your show.”
You’re able to talk to a lot of celebrities, aren’t you?
Oh, it’s great. I’ve sat down with three of the four Golden Girls.
Everyone but Estelle Getty, who was too far-gone to do interviews by the time we did the show. And now there’s just Betty.
But she’s already been on, right?
Right, a couple of times. But the best
thing was Bea Arthur. She told a story about why never getting Emmys for Maude was so tough. She said Bill Macy, who played her husband on the show, had gone to an Emmy luncheon, and he had been in Oh, Calcutta! So he liked to take his clothes off. So he dropped trou at the podium and said, “C–ksuckers of the world, unite!” When Bea Arthur told that story, I was like, “I love you, Bea!” So it was pretty great to have her swear like a sailor in front of us.
She lives on, thanks to your show. Who else?
We had Dyan Cannon last week. Steve Guttenberg is coming to see us this week. We’ve had everyone from Bette Midler to Clive Owen to every gay who’s out of the closet.
And even ones who aren’t who don’t say they’re gay.
Exactly. And where is Zachary Quinto [the recent Margin Call, the recent Halloween episode of American Horror Story, and Spock in the 2009 Star Trek film] right now? You get over here and let’s talk, now that you’re out of the closet!
I saw you on The Joy Behar Show a week or so ago.
Joy is so, so supportive of me and of the gay community, and I love her to pieces. She’s so smart and so funny. I love her line about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, about a conversation in the foxhole: “Cover my ass! We’ll sing ‘The Trolley Song’ later!”
Click here for dead-celebrity recipes from Liberace, Raymond Burr, Lucille Ball, and Bea Arthur.
The Frank DeCaro Show airs live every weekday on Sirius XM OutQ radio (10 a.m.–1 p.m. Central).
The Dead Celebrity Cookbook: A Resurrection of Recipes from More Than 145 Stars of Stage and Screen is available online or at bookstores, or to order directly from the publisher, call 1-800-441-5569 or visit hcibooks.com.