Bon Appétit, June 1978
Comedy and Cuisine in the Kitchen
There is nothing funny about Paul Lynde's cooking. The meals he painstakingly prepares for his lucky dinner guests are as impressive as Paul's incomparable wit. This "no contest" master of the zingy one-liner loves to dine and entertain in a manner that combines the grand style of the extravagant Old Hollywood with the casual conviviality of the New.
It's no secret to Paul's fans that he loves to eat - everything from junk food to elegant fare - nor has he ever concealed the fact that he has had to struggle to keep his weight down. The now trim and tanned Lynde has often used his personal "Battle of the bulge" as fodder for comedy.
Not surprisingly, the comedian's early knowledge of cuisine owed less to the Cordon Bleu than to the starch abundant cooking of his Midwestern childhood. "My mother was a marvelous cook," confides Paul, who grew up in Mount Vernon, Ohio, the third of four boys in a family of six. "Really, she was just great, even though she never realized that our stove had an oven and a broiler. Everything she served was fried - including the coffee. Food was a constant topic of conversation in our household. At the breakfast table, we'd discuss what we were having for lunch; at lunch we'd discuss dinner."
Nevertheless, it wasn't until the 10 year old Paul suffered a serious illness that his weight began to soar. "I was really immobile for almost a year," he recalls. "My mother set up the dining room as my bedroom, and brought me food every time she left the kitchen. I gained over 100 pounds."
Obesity haunted him all through what he calls "the important years" - junior high, high school and college. "The whole romantic part of my life was a wipeout. I didn't even own a belt."
Equally traumatic, he says, was his father's decision to quit his sheriff's job. Lynde Sr. traded in his badge for a meat cleaver and became a butcher. Paul admits that "there seemed to be a stigma about the word butcher. So I told everybody he was a cattle surgeon. Still, I wasn't exactly thrilled when all my classmates began to call me the chicken plucker." [NOTE: click here to download an audio clip from ClassicSquares.com (used with permission) which is a Hollywood Squares question to Rich Little on this very topic! The clip includes a response from Paul!] (Click here for more "chicken plucker" humor!) (Click here for "chicken plucker" reference from "Burke's Law")
In retrospect, however, Paul now feels that his dad's profession had its advantages. "My dad was a ham, too. He could sell those women anything. Of all his sons, I was the only one he could trust to sell as well as he could. I was proud of that, and I think basically an actor is a salesman." There were fringe benefits. "I also learned about good meats from my dad. I still do all my own shopping and I even cut up my own chickens - after all, I've done thousands of them."
After college, Paul headed for New York to try his hand at acting. He lived in a walk-up apartment in a shabby building filled with struggling actors. "I don't know of one great cook who came out of that building. Plenty of great thieves, but cooks, no. You see," he laughs, "the refrigerators were out in the halls, so that way we all had a chance to rifle through everybody else's food. It was pot luck every night."
Paul didn't actually learn to cook until he got his first major role on Broadway in Bye Bye Birdie several years later. "I finally got a nice apartment, with a good kitchen I could freely putter around in. I began to read cookbooks and in no time at all I was throwing together meals for myself. They weren't elegant, but they were quite edible."
For slightly over a year, Paul has lived in a magnificent French Regency house in Beverly Hills. The house, decorated by an interior designer, with plenty of assists from Paul, is a fluid bending of sumptuous eighteenth-century antiques and sparsely elegant modern pieces. No effort has been spared to create an inviting environment. As Paul prepares for dinner guests this chilly day, fires blaze in all the marble fireplaces, bathing every room in a golden light. Freshly cut flowers from Paul's formal gardens, artfully arranged in streamlined Lucite and silver vases, vie with objets d'art and paintings.
An ardent antiquer and art collector, the comedian is understandably proud of his new home. The house is not only a means of expression but also it comes close to fulfilling a boyhood fantasy. As a child, Paul's imagination was fueled by an old mansion not far from his own neighborhood. "I really dug that place. I used to sit on the steps of that house and wave at cars going by, pretending I lived there. I guess I always had delusions of grandeur," he says with his familiar wicked grin.
The Episcopalian church in his home town also provided him a great creative outlet. "It's called St. Paul's - named after me," he chuckles. "I sang in the choir there for years, even though my family belonged to another church. But I loved St. Paul's. The Episcopalians always seemed to have so much money - and so much fun. They gave great parties and the food was always superb. In fact, there were so many good cooks in that congregation that they've since published their own cookbook." Referring to the rich concoction of fruit and whipped cream he's just prepared, Paul adds: "My Millionaire's Salad came out of those days."
When the comedian isn't taping "Hollywood Squares" or is not on the road with a new play, he likes nothing better than to create lavish meals. In sharp contrast to the rest of the house with its rich colors and textures, the kitchen is stark white and antiseptic as an operating room. Careful planning went into this room with its etched glass cabinets, white tiled floors and butcher block counters. It is clearly a working area. A cloth witch doll, riding high on her broomstick above the breakfast nook, provides the only touch of whimsy. The witch was a gift from friend and colleague Alice Ghostley. "We appeared together in New Faces of 1952," Paul explains. "She told me it was bad luck to ever take it down. So, I never have.
"My kitchen is not a place to live in," Paul emphasizes as he surveys the spacious room. "I made it white so I can tell instantly if it's not clean - and I like it clean enough to be able to eat off the floors - or the tables, for that matter."
When it comes to cooking, however, even cleanliness takes a backseat to privacy. "I like to be alone in the kitchen," insists the otherwise outgoing entertainer. "When you're a bachelor like me, you practically have to beat well-meaning dinner guests over the head with a stick before they'll leave you alone to cook. They're always trying to be so helpful. Now when people say, 'Hey, you really don't want me in here, do you?' I say, 'Hey, you got it.'"
A fervent New Yorker, who enjoys that city's restaurants, authentic Irish pubs, and late-night pace, Paul rarely dines out in Los Angeles. "My friend Suzanne Pleshette keeps me up-to-date on all the new places. She and her husband eat out every night of the week. Imagine," he says, rolling his eyes. "I'd swear Suzanne's stove is a planter."
Paul Lynde skillfully orchestrates his dinner parties. He may start his preparations a week in advance, poring through a wide selection of cookbooks for ideas. "I may find something that looks interesting and I'll say, oh, that's nice, and then go on to alter the recipe by adding spices, things of my own. I also look for time-saving recipes, dishes that can be prepared ahead and stored.
"As far as cookbooks go, I think Joy of Cooking is a classic. I've used it over and over again. Julia Child? She frustrates me. By the time you get all her herbs together, you're exhausted."
Creating an atmosphere for his dinners is as important to the entertainer as serving great food. "Ah, yes," he laughs, "It's those little touches that make a great meal. For instance, I always play my favorite aria sung by Victoria de Los Angeles before opening the wine. It sets the proper mood. Of course, I'd rather listen to Cher...and I have this beautiful antique silver wine decanter that I bought at an auction. I always pour wine from that.
"I love sit-down-dinners with formal service," he says. "but I never go black tie. My guests can dress any way they want. Casual clothes are so attractive today that it's ridiculous to ask people to dress up and be uncomfortable. My table seats eight, so that's my maximum. Having a small number of guests is the only way to generate good conversation. Besides, your whole house doesn't get wrecked that way."
Paul's dining room furnishes him with the elegant but intime setting that he favors for parties. The room itself is enough of a conversation piece to keep guests talking for hours. A raised room, which opens to a comfortable den area, where guests often enjoy cocktails before dinner, it is fancifully appointed. The table, a beveled glass octagon, which practically fills the room, is surrounded by antique chairs upholstered in rich silk moiré. An elaborate smoked crystal chandelier hangs from the red lacquered ceiling, its shimmer softly reflected in the burnished shadow surfaces of the stainless steel walls. With the table now set with fine china, and a centerpiece of tulips and zinnias, the room is a feast for the eyes.
"I love this room," says Paul. "I gave an impromptu little dinner the first night it was finished, and I was amazed at how easy it was to talk to people and pass things. The octagon-shaped table never seems crowded with eight, plus there's plenty of table-setting space. I wouldn't have any other now. The dining room in my old house was truly magnificent, but by far the worst room for conversation. I'd get up from the table, a very long table, and somebody would always say, 'Paul, I never got to talk to you.' And that's when you should talk - when you're finally sitting down to enjoy a meal it's taken you three days to prepare. But that's the kind of burden a long table will place on a host. now in this room I just talk all the time," he says with an airy wave of his hand. "Nobody interrupts me."
One thing Paul has no patience with are vegetarians who neglect to fill him in on their special requirements ahead of time. "That just happened to me recently," he says, "and it really made me mad. Fortunately, I always serve a salad either of fruit or mixed greens, so there's something for everybody to eat. But if they had only told me, I would have fixed macaroni or some other pasta dish for them. By the way, I also can't stand those food cult people who bring their own food into the house. All those little thermoses and paper bags - it makes the other guests uncomfortable, too."
The comedian, who entertains as much as three times a week, still has to wrestle with his old demon, weight, but maintains it's getting a lot easier than it used to be. "For one thing," he says, "I don't always prepare such rich meals as the one I fixed today. Sometimes I'll just serve a simple quiche, salad and dessert for dinner. During the week I try to eat lightly, which is no problem for me because I like anything as long as it's prepared well - salads, soups, sandwiches. Sandwiches are wonderful. you don't need a spoon or a plate!"
Paul maintains a rigorous exercise regimen during the week. He is a great believer in jogging and runs wearing two rubber suits and two sweat suits on top of those. Fasting is another weight reduction technique that has worked well for him. "I often go on a liquid fast a couple of days a week. I never take just water. Instead, I'll have maybe six glasses of vegetable and fruit juices a day. I really think I may have the weight problem licked this time," he adds, then pauses reflectively. "Of course, there are obstacles. Things like homemade lentil soup with those little frankfurters in it - things like that can get in your way."
A Lynde dream is to own a restaurant-bar in New York someday. He smiles warmly as he envisions it. "I'd serve the best food possible. Also, I'd be the host and greet my friends every night and entertain them if I wanted to - or not, if I didn't feel like it. Mainly, I'd just want everybody to have a ball. That's the most important thing, I think - just being able to relax and have a lot of fun."
--- Jacquelyn Nicholson