Eating Family Style

Cassie Clemmons, 1942

I've always loved celebrity cooking stories. Maybe it's because they're proof that the starlets actually eat, or maybe it's because it tickles me to think of them puttering around a kitchen with knives and saucepans just like us. Not that long ago, I hit a gold mine when I discovered Frank DeCaro's library of celebrity recipes and I've spent hours paging through recipe contributions by Debbie Reynolds, Ida Lupino, and J. Edgar Hoover. (I'm sure Rock Hudson's cannoli is quite tasty.)

Growing up, I heard celebrity cooking stories from my Grandma and Grandpa Clemmons. Both of them worked and played in Hollywood and both of them loved to cook. Grandma, who once won a Charleston dance contest with William Bendix and was presented a string of pearls by judge Bette Davis, was a fashion sequence model at MGM, appearing briefly in The Women, The Great Ziegfield, and Dracula. Grandpa had studied architecture at University of Michigan but made his real career out of being a "funny man." He was a gag writer for Bing Crosby's radio show and later a script writer and storyman for Walt Disney, listing The Jungle Book, Robin Hood, The Aristocats, The Rescuers, and The Fox and the Hound among his credits.

My mother still recalls the annual holiday dinner parties thrown at their house in Glendale, where the Clemmons family hosted friends and neighbors who didn't have anywhere to go for the holidays. (Unlike today, when we have to deal with "busiest travel day" of the year, people back then just didn't hop on a plane to visit family every time a holiday popped up.) Some of the regulars at these raucous parties included Bill Morrow (Bing Crosby and Jack Benny's head writer) and his various girlfriends, including actress Pat Dane, a boxer named "Society Kid" Hogan, and Bing Crosby himself.

The food was a potluck affair with the guests bringing their favorite dishes and my grandmother taking care of the main course. A few Christmases ago, my mother put together a family cookbook for my two sisters and me and the three of us now have a sampling of some of these recipes as well as the stories. The recipes are, of course, very retro with lots of sour cream and mayonnaise. Clogged arteries aside, however, the recipes are absolute gems.


My favorite story in The Family Moveable Feast is Grandma experiencing a Julia Child moment. While my 80-year-old Great Grandma Mimi entertained the guests by doing the Cakewalk with her daughter Anita at the piano, Grandma was in the kitchen taking care of that year's roast turkey and Bill Morrow was in the kitchen keeping her company and feeding her cocktails. Ready to serve, the big bird was nestled on a platter when it slipped off and plummeted to the floor with a rather juicy smack. Grandma looked at Bill and Bill looked at Grandma. Grandma picked up the bird, brushed it off, and served it and Bill kept his mouth shut.

No one but wedding buffets seem to use chafing dishes any more. I have a lovely chafing dish that was a wedding present, but I'm afraid to take it out and see how tarnished it's become. However, if you do have a chafing dish you're not afraid to use or polish this Thanksgiving, here is one of the more decadent recipes in my family's cookbook.

Chafing Dish Mushrooms

3 pounds fresh mushrooms
1 1/2 cup Amontillado sherry
1/2 cup water
1/2 pound butter
1 fresh bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried tarragon
1 teaspoon dried dill seed
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 pint sour cream

1. Using a damp paper towel, brush off the mushrooms and trim the ends. Put the mushrooms in a large pot and add all the ingredients, except the sour cream.

2. Cook over medium heat for thirty minutes and until most of the liquid has reduced. Fold in the sour cream and serve in a polished, elegant chafing dish.