DINING WITH THE FAMOUS AND INFAMOUS, by Fiona Ross. Rowman & Littlefield, 258 pp., $38.
In her sparkling, if somewhat frenetic, “Dining With the Famous and Infamous,” Fiona Ross informs us that Cary Grant was a skinflint who presented his dates with turkey sandwiches on TV trays while Truman Capote tried to pass off store-bought pie as homemade (Andy Warhol ratted him out), and Alfred Hitchcock once served a dinner in which all the food was blue, including the soup. If you were dining alone with Salvador Dali and he ordered lobster in chocolate sauce, he wanted to sleep with you.
Based on extensive research at the Bodleian Library at Oxford and close reading of the works of Kitty Kelley, the 42 biographical essays in Ross’ cheeky collection are built on the eating lives of icons of Hollywood and the arts, mostly from the 20th century. They yield, as one might expect, a bumper crop of gossipy trivia. More surprising is just how astute and affecting some of the brief portraits manage to be. “What we are is revealed in what we eat,” Ross writes in the introduction, and goes on to prove her point in the pages that follow.
“Food was about nostalgia, friendship, romance and domination for Frank,” Ross begins the essay on Sinatra, who once threw a plate of pasta at the wall of a restaurant, offended that it was soggy. Elizabeth Taylor was a more polite pasta aficionado, who liked her spaghetti swimming in whiskey cream sauce, preceded perhaps by a chocolate martini. “Food,” writes Ross, “was the great, unspoken, unacknowledged love of her life.” (After reading about Taylor’s marital fiascos, you will agree.)
Ross, who doesn’t hesitate to find fault with her subjects, shows compassion for midcentury female sex symbols. When Marilyn Monroe’s then-husband Arthur Miller strong-armed her into making “Some Like It Hot” “for the bucks,” she tried to gorge her way out of the role. “Call me Baby Elephant,” Monroe said, “but I’m going to get so fat they won’t let me be in this awful picture.” One day of Monroe’s (futile) protest included “toast with three burgers, three eggs, three plates of home fries, a veal cutlet, two chocolate milkshakes, two helpings of aubergine parmigiana, and four bowls of chocolate pudding.”
Ross, a teacher in England who moonlights as a food writer and “gastro-detective,” is determined never to bore readers; instead she comes close to exhausting them. She is witty, sometimes relentlessly so, and jumps from saucy anecdote to saucy anecdote, rarely wasting time on anything so tedious as context. The accomplishments of these celebrities away from the table are mentioned only in passing, if they are mentioned at all, and while that makes for snappy reading, Ross occasionally glosses over details that would make some of her stories more accessible to readers who don’t share her comprehensive knowledge.
More problematic are the recipes. Is anyone really going to make lobster with chocolate sauce in homage to Dali, or whip up a so-called “cowboy stew” of heart, kidney and liver such as Woody Guthrie used to feast on? Moreover, with a few notable exceptions, virtually all the recipes are Ross’ facsimiles of what these people cooked or ate, not their actual recipes. They yield mixed results. The “rice pudding fit for Picasso” would indeed have been fit for Picasso, but only if he needed glue for a collage. (Trust me, I made it.) That said, by the end of this particularly lively and scathing essay, you may not think Picasso — a genius to be sure, but also portrayed here as a vain and manipulative Lothario — deserved much better.