Brain Pickings

Liberace’s Little-Known Cookbook

by

“Food and music are the two best things in life.”

By the 1970s, legendary American pianist and vocalist Wladzio Valentino Liberace, better known simply as Liberace, was the world’s highest-paid entertainer. Known for his lavish outfits and flamboyant fashion, he publicly denied being gay in his lifetime — and even sued those who alleged that he was — yet he emerged as an icon of the gay community. Elton John himself has said that Liberace was the first gay person he saw on television, becoming his instant hero. Interestingly, some cultural historians have argued that Liberace also inspired the high-rolling, bling-encrusted imagery of hip-hop culture — a mecca of verbally explicit homophobia — with at least one book framing him as a pioneer of hip-hop’s luxe lifestyle.

An aficionado of finery in all its forms, Liberace had an especial passion for gastronomy — a lesser-known aspect of the icon’s life, obscured by his musical fame and role in gay culture, and yet very much a vital undercurrent in both, and a fine addition to the secrets obsessions of great creators. Besides the seven pianos in his Hollywood mansion — including a diamond-studded white upright one, a gold-leaf grand with two keyboards, and a magic Baldwin concert grand with a see-through glass top, which traveled on tour with him — Liberace also had seven dining rooms in the house, a symmetry bespeaking the two parallel loves of his life: music and food. Indeed, as a lover of unusual vintage cookbooks, I was utterly delighted to find a rare record of the latter in the 1970 out-of-print gem Liberace Cooks! Recipes from His Seven Dining Rooms (public library; Abe Books) by the renowned food critic and arts patron Carol Truax, who befriended Mr. Showmanship in the late 1960s and took him up on the invitation to visit his Hollywood home so he could record for posterity his flair for cooking — which she did, beautifully.

Liberace and his mother and brother George in the informal dining room (Photograph: Bob Plunkett)

Liberace’s love affair with food started early, in large part as escapism from the grim realities of the Depression while he was growing up. When he was four, his parents would have musical evenings and they’d egg him on to get into the act. At seven, he got his first real music teacher and began working hard at the piano. By the time he was a sixteen-year-old high school student, he had his own act called the Mixers — and, curiously enough, in it was the seed of his passion for cooking. He recalls:

We’d mix the music, make a medley as it were, and get the crowd mixing — but as I think of it now, I think food has something to do with it. … [Food and music] are the two best things in life.

He eventually began teaching a cooking class — but not to girls: to the football team. He bribed them into signing up by saying the Mixers wouldn’t play at their dances unless they took the class:

They signed. Nobody thought they’d learn a thing, and their fathers didn’t want to come to the father-son banquet, they thought they’d be poisoned; but they came, and they got a pleasant surprise. Next year, thirty-six boys wanted to take the class.

And so his mastery of cuisine was born. At the same time, Liberace was busy getting ready to make his debut with the Chicago Symphony, which launched his career, but his culinary passion remained ablaze. When he eventually became a worldwide music celebrity and earned his way to a Hollywood mansion, he had it built with seven dining rooms, extending his famous extravagance to the physical architecture of his culinary experience for different occasions — besides the regular dining room, he also had one each for buffets, cookouts, midnight suppers, banquets, watching TV, and DIY dining in the kitchen. He only ate in the standard dining room when he was merely hungry — the rest he used when he was in the mood or entertaining for the respective occasion.

Liberace and Carol Truax in the kitchen (Photograph: Bob Plunkett)

In Liberace Cooks, of which I was fortunate and dogged enough to track down a surviving signed copy, Truax takes us on a tour of all seven, offering some of Liberace’s signature recipes for each occasion. We begin at the regular dining room, which “seats eight at the most” and is designed for indoor-outdoor eating. There, Liberace serves such treats as:

PIEROGI (serves 6)

1 egg
3½ cups flour
½ teaspoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
¼ to ½ cup milk
¼ to ½ cup water
1 pound cottage cheese
2 tablespoons sour cream
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup plumped seedless raisins (optional)
3 tablespoons melted butter

Mix the egg with 3 cups flour and the ½ teaspoon sugar and 1/8 teaspoon salt. Add a mixture of milk and water to make a smooth thin dough. Roll out as thin as possible, using a little of the remaining flour. Cut into 2½-inch squares. Smooth the cottage cheese with sour cream. Add the egg yolk, remaining sugar and salt, and fold into triangles or into an envelope shape. Pinch the edges together. Drop into boiling salted water for 5 minutes. Serve with melted butter. You may sauté these in the butter if you wish, turning once. Cook 2 minutes on each side.

BRAISED OXTAILS (serves 8)

4 oxtails cut into 1½- to 2-inch pieces
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
Flour
1 large onion, chopped fine
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cans beef broth
2 to 3 bay leaves
½ teaspoon oregano
Sprigs parsley
½ cup red wine
1 small can tomato purée
8 carrots cut into 1½-inch pieces
12 small white onions

Don’t use the thin ends of the tail, save them for soup. Season the oxtails with salt and pepper and dust with flour. Sauté the onion for 2 minutes in oil. Add the oxtails and brown thoroughly, turning to brown evenly. Add the broth, bay leaves, oregano, and parsley, and simmer, covered, for an hour. Add the wine and tomato purée and water equal in amount to the purée. Simmer for half an hour. Add carrots and onions and cook until vegetables are tender.

BRAINS IN BLACK BUTTER (serves 8)
2½ pounds calves’ brains (4 pairs)
Salt
Flour
¼ cup butter
Lemon juice or vinegar

Put the brains in a quart of cold water with 2 tablespoons salt for at least half an hour. Cook gently in salted water or broth for 15 minutes and plunge into ice water. Remove membrane — it’s easier to do now than before you boil them. Dredge the brains slightly with flour. Heat the butter until dark brown. Add a few drops of lemon juice or vinegar and sauté the brains until they are light brown. Sprinkle with about ½ teaspoon salt and pour the foamy butter over.

Dishes not requiring ample amounts of butter, heavy cream or bacon are surprisingly sparse in Liberace’s recipe repertoire (he even puts bacon and butter in his guacamole), but the seafood section — which is prefaced by a note I, a daily fish eater, find charmingly dated: “Fish is no longer just for Fridays. Liberace likes to dine on fish any day.” — is where a few such beacons of non-buttery hope appear:

STUFFED SEA BASS (serves 6)

1 4-pound sea bass
2 teaspoons salt
½ cup chopped celery
½ cup chopped onion
1 glove garlic, crushed (optional)
¼ cup olive oil
2 cups seasoned bread crumbs
½ teaspoon pepper
½ teaspoon thyme
¼ cup grated Romano cheese
Lemon wedges

Slit the fish down the center and take out the bone or, better still, have the fish market do so. Sprinkle inside with 1 teaspoon salt. Sauté the celery, onion, and garlic in 2 tablespoons olive oil for 5 minutes. Blend with the bread crumbs, remaining salt, and pepper and thyme. Stir in the cheese. Stuff the fish and sew or skewer edges. Brush with remaining oil and bake in a 350º oven for 20 to 30 minutes. Serve with lemon wedges.

SQUID CASSEROLE (serves 6)

3 pounds squid
4 shallots, minced, or ¼ cup chopped onion
¼ cup chopped parsley
¼ cup minced celery
Chopped celery leaves
1 glove garlic, crushed
¼ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
¼ teaspoon thyme or oregano
2 tablespoons tomato paste or ¼ cup red wine

Clean the squid by removing the head and the transparent spine. Wash out the body thoroughly and rub off the outside thin skin. Save the ink if you can. Cut up the tentacles and cut the body into ½-inch rings. Sauté the shallots or onion, parsley, celery and leaves, and the garlic in olive oil for several minutes. Add salt, pepper, thyme or oregano, and tomato paste or red wine. Put the squid and any ink into this and simmer until tender. If the squid is very young, 10 minutes is enough, but it can take over an hour. Serve with rice.

Despite his penchant for ostentatious dining, Liberace had a handful of quick recipes up his diamond-studded sleeve:

QUICK APPLE PIE (serves 8)

8 apples, peeled, cored, and cut up
¾ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch salt
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 recipe for Piecrust
Cornflakes
2 tablespoons butter
Powdered sugar

Simmer the apples with sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, salt, and lemon juice for 20 minutes. Line a pie pan with half the pastry. Sprinkle with a layer of cornflakes. Pour in the apple mixture and dot with the butter. Cover the top slashed crust, pinch the edges with wet fingers. Bake in a 450º oven for 10 minutes, then reduce to 350º, and bake for 25 minutes until the crust is brown and apples tender. Sprinkle with powdered sugar while still very hot. Serve hot or cold.

Next, we move to Liberace’s DIY kitchen meals, inextricably tied to his internal clock — a fine addition to the odd daily routines of luminaries. Truax writes:

Most of us call it lunch. Liberace calls it breakfast. His working hours are late, from 8 P.M. to midnight, and usually even later because his audiences have a way of refusing to go home. Following a night like that, of course he sleeps until after noon. Then he gets up, ready for a good breakfast, and sits down to it at lunch time. There is no law about where he eats it, but on certain days, “when the help is off,” he may take over the kitchen.

Anybody would be proud to take over that kitchen. There is no more beautiful room in the house. Spacious, many-windowed, it is tiled in gleaming blue and papered in white with figures of the same Delft blue. One of the wide counters reaches into the butler’s pantry. An oval table centers the room, and a white side table is ready to offer hot coffee and eatables.

On those occasions when Liberace takes over his own kitchen, he likes to make for himself what he calls his “fifteen-minute breakfast” — a scrumptious artery-clogger, of which Mr. Showmanship admonishes, “Eat it right away … don’t let it sit around and get hard.”

LIBERACE SPECIAL 15-MINUTE EGGS (serves 1)

1 tablespoon butter
2 eggs
¼ cup half-and-half or light cream
¼ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
2 teaspoons grated Parmesan cheese

Warm a baking dish about 2 ½ to 3 inches across. Put in a little butter. Then break in the eggs. Pour over the half-and-half or cream, which should almost cover the eggs. Dot with remaining butter, sprinkle with salt, pepper, and cheese. Bake in a preheated 375º oven for 7 or 8 minutes until the whites are set.

Truax affirms Liberace’s marriage of quick cuisine and masterful preparation:

The kitchen is the place for short orders. Anyone who respects an omelet wants it made on the spot especially for him, and put before him straight from the pan, to be eaten at once. If this isn’t a short order, what is? Each individual omelet is a production, and who stages a production better than the entertainer who is known all over the world as “Mr. Showmanship”?

Liberace had a special soft spot for soups — once, when he nearly died, the nuns who took care of him at the hospital tried everything to get him to eat, with no luck, until one of them finally made him “a magical soup” that set him on the road to recovery. Years later, healthy and wealthy, Liberace resurrected the simple, life-saving brew as a staple of his own kitchen:

CONVENT SOUP (serves 4)

1 quart strong chicken broth
2 eggs
3 tablespoons flour

Heat the broth. Beat the eggs. Add the flour gradually. You want the mixture soft enough to dribble into the soup. Dribble it slowly while the soup is simmering. Let it continue to simmer for a couple of minutes. Season to taste.

Liberace at his buffet table (Photograph: Bob Plunkett)

Next, we move on to another of Liberace’s dining rooms — his beautiful buffet by the yard on the ground floor of home, the space designated for performances and performance parties, where his beloved pianos reside. His buffet table extends yard by yard to fit countless dishes that accommodate his guests’ varied appetites. Truax writes:

Whether the entertainment is music or movie, it is sure to be followed by a beautiful buffet. Liberace is never happier than when he is offering good things to his friends.

Here are a few treats from Liberace’s buffet:

SHRIMP CHEF’S SALAD (serves 6 to 8)

1 quart mixed greens, cut up
1 pound cooked medium-size shrimp
2 tablespoons minced parsley
2 tablespoons capers
4 tomatoes, peeled and quartered
½ cup Lemon French Dressing

Put the greens in a bowl. If the shrimp are large, slice them length-wise. Put the shrimp on the lettuce, sprinkle with parsley and capers. Place the tomato wedges around the edge and pour the dressing over.

GAZPACHO (serves 8)

2 gloves garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons olive oil
8 large ripe tomatoes, peeled, or 1 1-pound, 14-ounce can
Few drops Tabasco sauce
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon sugar
1 small cucumber, peeled and cut up
1 medium onion, cut up
3 tablespoons bread crumbs
2 cups chicken broth or water
Ice cubes
2 cups hot croutons
Minced scallions (garnish)
Grated hard-cooked egg yolks (garnish)
Chopped pitted green or ripe olives (garnish)
Chopped green pepper (garnish)

Buzz the garlic, olive oil, tomatoes, Tabasco sauce, vinegar, salt, pepper, sugar, cucumber, onion, and crumbs in a blender with the broth. You may need to divide the ingredients; the blender shouldn’t be more than three-quarters full. Chill. Serve in soup bowls with an ice cube in each, or from a tureen with a number of ice cubes. Pass the croutons piping hot and have any or all of the minced vegetables available in bowls as garnish.

And the mandatory culinary souvenir of the era, with Liberace’s own twist:

BEEF STROGANOFF (serves 8)

3½ pounds lean boneless sirloin
2 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoons pepper
2 medium onions, chopped fine
1 glove garlic, crushed
¼ cup butter
1 pound mushrooms, sliced
4 teaspoons paprika
2 cups beef broth or consommé
1 pint sour cream
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce or ¼ cup sherry

Have the beef cut into pencil-like strips about 2 inches long. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and dredge with 3 tablespoons flour. Sauté the onions and garlic in butter for 3 minutes. Add the mushrooms and beef and sauté for 3 minutes, not more. Remove meat and set aside. Add remaining flour and the paprika to the pan. Stir in the broth and cook and stir until smooth and thickened. Reduce heat to low. Add the sour cream and Worcestershire sauce or sherry. When warm, return the beef to the pot and reheat. Do NOT boil and do not overcook. Good with noodles.

Liberace was very close with his mother, who once won the blue ribbon at the Milwaukee State Fair for her potato soup, so Truax was compelled to include it in the cookbook:

MOM’S BLUE RIBBON POTATO SOUP (serves 6)

3 large potatoes, peeled and diced
2 quarts water
Salt
¼ pound thin noodles
¼ pound thick sliced bacon, diced
1 large onion, chopped
¼ teaspoon white pepper

Cook the potatoes in 2 quarts salted water. Cook the noodles according to package instructions. Combine the noodles with the potatoes and their liquid. Meanwhile, sauté the bacon with onions. Stir into the soup. Add the pepper and adjust seasoning to taste. Serve piping hot.

Liberace, in fact, was a fan of all-American staples. (As Truax puts it, “Liberace may have traveled all over, but he remains as American as hamburger. He has a way with ground beef, and it is adapted to that after-theater buffet.”) And so we get his signature hamburger recipe:

LIBERACE SPECIAL HAMBURGERS (serves 12)

6 tablespoons minced onion
2 teaspoons butter
4 pounds ground sirloin
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
½ teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon leaf thyme
1½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
6 round hamburger buns

SUGGESTED CONDIMENTS: Relish, mustard, ketchup, fried onions, horse-radish in sour cream, sliced tomatoes, lettuce, mayonnaise, sliced raw onions.

Sauté the onion in butter until light brown. Mix with the remaining ingredients except buns. Split the buns and put a ½- to ¾-inch patty on the split side of the buns. Put the meat all the way to the edge. Store in a refrigerator to firm the beef until ready to cook. Broil 6 inches away from the heat for 6 to 8 minutes.

Liberace in the TV-watching dining room (Photograph: Bob Plunkett)

Next comes Liberace’s TV dining room, which doesn’t in the slightest compromise on elegance on account of its pop culture purpose; rather, it adapts the dining format to the experience — everything is set on the table at once, so that no servants come and go to disrupt the viewing and nobody needs to move to serve themselves. One-dish meals are particularly suited to the occasion:

TURKEY OR CHICKEN DIVAN (serves 6)

2 pounds asparagus or 1 bunch broccoli
Slices cooked breast of turkey or chicken
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1½ cups half-and-half or milk
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
½ cup grated parmesan cheese

Cook the asparagus or broccoli in salted water until tender. Drain and put it into a large shallow baking dish or ovenproof platter. Cover this completely with the sliced turkey or chicken. While the vegetable is cooking, make the sauce. Melt the butter, stir in the flour — Wondra flour makes it less likely to lump. Slowly add the half-and-half while stirring. Add the salt and pepper and cook and stir until smooth and thickened. Add half the grated cheese and stir until it melts. Pour over the turkey, top with the remaining cheese, and put under the broiler until it is bubbly and lightly browned on top. Serve at once directly from the dish it was cooked in.

Next, we move on to Liberace’s outdoor dining loggia. There, too, Mr. Showmanship takes no prisoners. Truax writes:

When Liberace cooks out, he means business. He doesn’t wear his diamonds or his ruffles, nor does he have a candelabra on the outdoor grill. He wears a chef’s apron, like anybody else’s — but with a difference — and brandishes a three-foot iron fork. Five huge barbecue implements hang in a row on the loggia wall underneath the decorative frieze of piano keys, and handy to the double-size grill.

Liberace cooking on his dining loggia (Photograph: Bob Plunkett)

There, in his coveted cook-nook, Liberace stands surrounded by a canopy to protect him from the elements. It stretches out into the long terrace, which faces the mandatory Hollywood-mansion swimming pool. Regularly spaced cypress trees frame the garden, which contains fountains, urns, and Liberace’s favorite sculpture — a statue of St. Francis. Marble steps lead to a second terrace, which has been known to seat 200 people for the occasional féte champêtre. Liberace’s kebabs were his most lauded specialty:

SHISH KEBAB (serves 8)

¼ cup red wine
2 tablespoons lemon or lime juice
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/8 teaspoon oregano
2 cloves garlic, crushed
3 pounds lean lamb, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 eggplant or 2 pounds zucchini
2 green peppers, seeded and parboiled
4 to 6 firm tomatoes, cut into quarters
16 to 24 boiled or canned white onions

Mix the wine, lemon or lime juice, oil, salt, pepper, oregano, and garlic. Put the lamb into this marinade for several hours, turning frequently. Cut the unpeeled eggplant or zucchini into 2-inch pieces. Cut the peppers into eights. Alternate lamb and vegetables on 8 long skewers. Put extras on smaller skewers for seconds! Broil 8 minutes, turning once and brushing with the marinade.

But Liberace’s pride and joy was the final addition to his mansion, his beloved Blue Room where, as Truax puts it, “everything that is not blue is glass” — two whole walls are solid glass, inviting the sky inside. An around-the-corner bar of quilted blue leather wraps around the L-shaped space, with matching luxurious chairs. In a testament to Liberace’s pioneering approach to public relations and the art of engineering one’s own myth, the room was built specifically for his special friends, “the gentlemen of the press.” “His press conferences,” Truax writes, “can thus be lubricated across the bar,” observing with a wink:

Newsmen are hungry men. The institution of “free lunch” at the counter is an honorable one, and just suits the gentlemen of the fourth estate. … If any “ink-stained wretch” lusts for peanuts, he finds a mechanical dispenser handy on the bar. But who wants peanuts when he can get savory hot canapés?

Liberace behind the bar in the Blue Room (Photograph: Bob Plunkett)

From the Blue Room, we get Liberace’s favorite cocktail foods, such as:

SINGAPORE AND MALAYSIAN SATAY (serves about 30 people)

3 pounds lean sirloin or filet of beef
¼ cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon minced onion
1 glove garlic, crushed
¼ cup peanut butter
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons brown sugar
½ teaspoon paprika

Cut the meat into ½-inch cubes and put into a large bowl. Bring all of the other ingredients to a boil. Pour over the meat and marinate for at least three hours. Thread a few pieces of the meat on the bamboo or metal skewers about 4 inches long. Broil for 2 minutes, turn and broil 2 more minutes. Brush with the remaining sauce or pass and let each person dip his own.

GUACAMOLE (about 2½ cups)

3 large ripe avocados
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
¼ teaspoon cayenne
2 teaspoons grated onion
1 glove garlic, crushed
Dash Tabasco sauce
Crisp minced bacon (optional)

Peel and mash the avocados. Add lemon juice and sat immediately to prevent discoloration. Stir in the Worcestershire sauce, cayenne, onion, garlic, and Tabasco. Reseason to taste. For a change, sprinkle with a little crisp minced bacon.

Lastly, we get to the formal dining room. Liberace took his formal dinners with the utmost gravity, relinquishing his usual accouterments of bodily bling — suit of lights, diamond necktie, and his other famed sparkly outfits — in order to let the candles take over with their ceremonial glow over the intricate handmade lace tablecloth adorned with crystal drops around the edge. Liberace had strict menus for his formal dinners, seven of which Truax outlines in the book, before moving on to a special chapter on sauces. “It’s the sauces,” Liberace believed, “that divide the men from the boys, and separate the gourmets from the guzzlers.” His cherished repertoire of perfect, make-or-break sauces included:

TOMATO SAUCE (about 1 quart)

1 onion, chopped
1 glove garlic, minced
¼ cup olive oil
1 1-pound, 4-ounce can Italian tomatoes
1 6-ounce can tomato paste (optional)
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon basil

Sauté the onion and garlic in oil for 3 or 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, salt, pepper, sugar, and basil. Simmer uncovered, for half an hour until the sauce thickens. Cover and cook 15 minutes more.

BARBECUE SAUCE (about 3 cups)

1 6-ounce can tomato paste
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 large onion, chopped fine
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons lemon juice
¼ teaspoon pepper
¼ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon celery salt
½ teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup water

Simmer all ingredients together for 5 minutes.

The final recipe in the cookbook is a well-paced play on the closing of a meal, the coffee-and-dessert course:

COFFEE FROSTING (about 1½ cups)

½ cup butter
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ cup triple-strength coffee or ¼ cup water with 3 tablespoons instant coffee

Mix all of the ingredients together.

Liberace Cooks!, should you be so lucky to track down a surviving copy, is a treat in its entirety. Complement it with Mimi Sheraton’s fantastic Seducer’s Cookbook, the whimsical Alice in Wonderland Cookbook, and the immeasurably entertaining Artists’ & Writers’ Cookbook.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Share on Tumblr