Like every fine actor, Vincent Price is a master of illusion.
Mention Italy. Better yet, ask about the food of Italy.
As he talks - "my wife adores pasta . . ." - the voice paints a picture and in moments you are transported to a restaurant kitchen near Rome's Spanish Steps and are sharing one of the actor's favorite dishes.
"White beans and caviar," he announces, allowing the full implications of such a marriage to sink in. It shatters culinary class and color barriers. It is audacious and Vincent Price loves it. Not just the shock value, but the taste sensation and a little detail of preparation: The beans are not boiled; they are steamed in a Chianti bottle to keep the texture firm.
Price will talk about white beans at Woodward & Lothrop's downtown store Friday at noon as well as truffles and the restaurants and recipes to be found in his "A Treasury of Great Recipes." Three publishers have produced an astonishing 300,000 copies of this remarkable book. Still in print a dozen years after it first was published, it was begun on a commission from Sears Roebuck, with whom Price also collaborated on a significant project to popularize art.
"They ordered 90,000," he said one afternoon last week as he sat in an office at Ford's Theater where he is playing Oscar Wilde in "Delights and Diversions." "That meant we had the money to do it right - quality paper, color photographs. It became such a success I don't have to plug it anymore. When I go on a talk show the host brings it up."
Price's commitment to eating and drinking well is one of conviction, not of convenience. He talks as enthusiastically of a small restaurant in Montana as he does of the grand cuisine of Europe. If he has not given the book the update he says it needs, the (c) WORD ILLEGIBLE is lack of time, not lack of interest.
"They say actors will eat anything at anytime" he begins with a disapproving frown. "And it's true." He laughs.
Price enjoys laughing. He enjoys people. And by his own account he enjoys cooking for them.
"My wife (actress Coral Browne) and I are great chicken eaters," he said. "On the road we will buy a roast chicken, eat it until there is nothing left and boil the bones for stock. At home we cook chicken for large groups and for ourselves."
For all their sophistication, the Prices entertain with a touch of practicality. They keep a record of dinner menus and guests so returnees won't encounter one of their favorite menus a second time. One menu they repeat often is jellied madrilene with chopped onion and red caviar, boneless chicken breasts parmesan with seasonal vegetables, a salad with avocado dressing and fresh fruit crepes. Wine is sure to appear and often it is from Robert Mondavi or another of the fine California vineyards.
This may shock devotees of his horroe films, but Price is "not much of a red meat eater." But he laughed again as he recalled some of the food scenes he has played on film. Among his favorites are a wine-tasting spoof he and Peter Lorre performed in "Tales of Terror" and a banquet in "Dragon-wyck." "The food looked wonderful." he said, so every time they did a take "the actors would dig in. We'd eat so much they would have to replace it for the next take. And the next. Pretty soon the director was eating, too. By the time it was over it was a very expensive scene."
The actor traces his interest in food to his boyhood in St. Louis. "My mother," he said, "was a one-woman home economics class. We learned about cooking. We learned about sewing. I still mend suits and I do it very well."
It's a long was from St. Louis to a conversation about eating wild turkey in the Yucatan, but Price makes the transition gracefully and without a hint of snobbery. He talks about the "relish trays" in old-time restaurants with real enthusiasm has a first-hand knowledge of McDonald's food and dreams of doing a book one day on "the simplicity of cooking."
In his own kitchen he now uses a food cessor to make delicate quenelles, but remembers an early experience with something that should have been easy - a roast turkey. "I wanted to stuff it with oysters," he said. "So I got Olympias (from Washington state). They're small, so I put a great many in. But they have a much stronger flavor than Chesapeake oysters, so after the bird was stuffed and cooked the taste was so fishy I'm afraid my guests thought they were being served roast sea gull."
Oscar Wilde would have had something to say about that, although according to Price, "He probably never would have tasted it. With people around he was always too busy talking to eat."
Here is a favorite Price chicken recipe from "A Treasury of Great Recipes." FRIDAY CHICKEN (6 serving) 1 capon, about 7 pounds 5 slices white bread 1/2 cup water 1/2 cup finely chopped parsley 4 eggs, lightly beaten 2 teaspoons salt 1/2 teaspoon pepper 1 teaspoon thyme or crumbled sage leaves 1 small onion, grated 1/2 cup soft butter
Loosen the skin of the capon by inserting the hand over the breast meat and down around the thighs, carefully tearing any connecting tissue.
Cut crusts from bread. Sprinkle with water and let soak for 3 minutes. Squeeze out excess moisture and mix the bread with the parsley, eggs, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, thyme and grated onion.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Stuff dressing between skin and meat of the capon, over the breast, forcing it into the leg pockets. Place capon, breast up, on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. Spread with butter and sprinkle with remaining 1 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Roast at 375 degreees for 45 minutes, basting frequently. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees and cook for 1 hour longer, basting every 20 minutes. Turn capon over on its breast and cook for 15 minutes longer to brown the back. Serve hot or at room temperature.
The recipe got its name because it was always made on Friday - cooking and baking day - and then was eaten cold over the weekend.