Hollywood Studio Commissary Secrets (and Stars' Favorite Recipes) Revealed in Unpublished Memoir

7:30 AM 7/25/2019

by Gary Baum

A recently discovered unpublished manuscript by Pauline Kessinger, who ran Paramount's "Continental Café" from the '40s to the '80s, reveals more than what the stars ate — it's a de facto cookbook of Hollywood history.

Kessinger in the commissary's kitchen. "There was never a dull moment," she wrote in her memoir. "One day we had to whip up pounds of powdered whites of egg for Howard Hawks' picture 'Hatari'! ... so that Elsa Martinelli could bathe in it."
Kessinger in the commissary's kitchen. "There was never a dull moment," she wrote in her memoir. "One day we had to whip up pounds of powdered whites of egg for Howard Hawks' picture 'Hatari'! ... so that Elsa Martinelli could bathe in it."
Courtesy of Paramount

For 40 years, Pauline Kessinger served Hollywood lunch. Sometimes breakfast and dinner, too. As doyenne of Paramount Studio's Continental Café — its commissary for decades before it was shuttered in 1983 to make way for the Zukor Building — she cooked for everybody from Jerry Lewis (whose table-cloth-yanking antics drove her crazy) to William Holden (who, for some reason, always sat with studio lawyers) and even the famous horse Trigger (who once kicked a hole in the commissary wall). Before she died in 1995, she poured her recollections — sprinkled with the stars' favorite recipes — into an unpublished and untitled memoir, which not long ago was unearthed in the studio archives. "I know a Pandora's box full of events that overtook people, sometimes flinging them to fame, sometimes dashing them to destruction," Kessinger wrote in the introduction to the book, excerpted on these pages. "I will never tell most of those stories." Yet her memoir reveals so much more than just the ingredients of Kim Novak's Purple Salad Dressing.

  • Veronica Lake's Meatloaf

    "Whenever women get together, the conversation automatically turns to the high cost of food. And why not? These days balancing a food budget is every bit as complicated as figuring out a yearly income-tax report. Not long ago, Veronica Lake, Mona Freeman and Mary Hatcher were engaged in 'girl talk' between scenes of their new movie, Isn't It Romantic [1948]. When the king-size headache of menu planning entered the conversation, Veronica told her co-stars about an economical meatloaf she serves her family. According to Veronica, the loaf is not only inexpensive, but mighty tasty."

    Recipe: 

    1 pound ground beef
    1/2 C. chopped celery
    1/2 C. cooked carrots
    1 TBSP. chopped onion
    1 1/4 C. uncooked oatmeal
    2 TSP. salt
    2 TSP. dry mustard
    1 TSP. pepper
    1/3 C. catsup
    1 C. milk
    1 egg (slightly beaten) 

    Combine all ingredients and mix thoroughly. Place in 8-inch loaf pan and bake for 1 1/4 hours at 325 degrees.

    For left-over meatloaf, Miss Lake suggests a thick gravy of cream of mushroom soup.

  • Ann-Margret's Chef's Salad

    "During the filming of The Swinger, a fantasy sequence called for Ann-Margret to appear as a human paintbrush to cover a giant canvas in psychedelic shades. The material used to simulate the paint had to spread evenly and not cause harm to the star's delicate skin. The commissary solution: a creamy, thin vanilla pudding — then colored with food coloring. We made about 300 gallons of this a day until the sequence was completed. When Ann-Margret was making Pocketful of Miracles [1961], she was very fond of our Chef's Salad."

    Recipe: 

    1 1/2 Quarts of your favorite salad greens
    1 clove garlic
    3/4 C. salad oil
    1/4 C. salad vinegar
    1 TSP. salt
    1/4 TSP. freshly ground pepper
    1 1/2 C. cold cooked turkey, cut in strips
    1 1/2 C. cold ham, cut in strips
    1/2 C. Swiss cheese, cut in strips
    1 TSP. sugar 
     
    Muddle the garlic in wooden salad bowl, remove garlic from bowl. Add greens. Pour salad oil over greens and toss well. Add vinegar, salt and pepper to taste and toss again, adding the sugar. Top with turkey, ham and Swiss cheese strips. Serves 10.
     
  • Kim Novak's Purple Salad

    "Before I met her I thought Kim Novak's passion for purple was a publicity stunt, just pure hokum, but after she came to the studio I wasn't so sure. I'm still not, because she not only wore purple, she ate it as well — in the form of a Kim Novak Salad we put on the menu in her honor. It is the use of vinegar that gives this its added zing."

    Recipe: 

    1 packet Knox gelatin
    1 3 oz. package grape Jello (purple)
    1 1/2 C. boiling water
    Dash of white vinegar
    Fruit

    Dissolve Knox gelatin in a little cold water. Mix with hot Jello mixture. Grease mold with a little oil. Line mold with 1/2 pears and pineapple chunks and Thompson seedless grapes. Put a little of the Jello mixture in and let it set so that the first layer of fruit will stay on the bottom. Then add another layer of fruit of your choice, put in the refrigerator to jell. Serves 6.

  • William Holden's Shish Kebab

    "During the filming of [1950's] Sunset Boulevard, the company often worked nights therefore the commissary would serve dinner to Gloria Swanson, Bill Holden, Nancy Olson and the rest of the cast and crew. He would have a Hamburger Steak burned on the outside and rare in the middle. Miss Swanson is very nutrition-minded, so I would get organic vegetables for her. The chef would cook the vegetables without seasoning.

    "Holden often arrives home from an eight-hour stint before Paramount cameras to enjoy a barbecue dinner. For example, one evening after emoting with Nancy Olson in the new drama Submarine Command, Bill invited Nancy and her husband, Alan Lerner, to join the Holden [family] in an outdoor feast which highlighted 'Shish Kebab à la Bill Holden.'"

    Recipe: 

    2 pounds lamb, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes
    Juice of 2 lemons
    2 TBSP. grated onion
    5 TBSP. olive oil
    2 TBSP. ground chili peppers
    Tomatoes
    Onions
    Green pepper
    Large mushroom caps
    Butter or margarine for basting

    Marinate meat squares in mixture of lemon juice, grated onion, chili peppers and olive oil. Cut tomatoes, green peppers and onions in chunks. Place meat on skewers and alternate with tomato, onion, mushroom caps and green pepper. Barbecue until tender, basting with melted margarine or butter.

  • Janet Leigh's Pork Chops (Tony Curtis' Favorite)

    "Typical of millions of working wives throughout the country, Janet Leigh finds preparing dinner quite a problem. Recently, while filming the [1953] George Pal production Houdini, Janet was teamed with her husband, Tony Curtis, for the first time in their motion picture careers. Because both of them were working in the same film at the same time, it was necessary for Janet to prepare simple dishes in advance. She took to the old standby of the casserole dinner and frequently prepared these casseroles in the morning before leaving for the studio. Tony's favorite was pork chops and rice."

    Recipe: 
     
    4 double-thick pork chops, or 8 small ones
    2 large onions, sliced
    Garlic
    1/4 TSP. Thyme
    Salt and pepper
    2 TBSP. bacon fat or cooking oil
    1 1/2 C. long-grain rice
    1/2 C. tomato juice 
     
    Rub the pork chops with garlic, and brown in a frying pan in the fat. Remove to a baking dish or casserole and cover with the sliced onions. Add the tomato juice and the seasoning to the fat residue in the frying pan and let simmer a few minutes. Wash the rice thoroughly in cold water, rubbing between your fingers until the water is clear. Put the raw rice on top of the chops and onions in the casserole. Add the boiling tomato juice. Bake covered in a medium oven for 45 minutes or until the rice is cooked. If you want to make this dish more substantial, a layer of raw sliced zucchini may be placed on top of the onions before the rice is added. Oregano can be used instead of the thyme, or in addition to it, and 1/4 cup sherry used to replace 1/4 cup of the tomato juice.

    This story first appeared in the July 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.