THE image of a bombshell cooking her way to nirvana may seem old-hat now, thanks to Nigella, Giada, Padma and the like. But back in the 1950s, a Hollywood starlet was not expected to squander her talents (or risk her manicure) chopping onions.
A new book, however, includes a recipe in Marilyn Monroe’s handwriting that suggests that she not only cooked, but cooked confidently and with flair.
“Fragments” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $30) collects assorted letters, poems and back-of-the-envelope scribblings that span the time from Monroe’s first marriage in 1943 to her death in 1962. Most of the material, however, dates from the late ’50s, when she was at the height of her fame, moved to New York, married Arthur Miller and connected with Lee Strasberg and his Actors Studio. Her poignant attempts to assert her intellectual side are what have made news about this collection, but the recipe on Page 180 was a bigger revelation to us.
Scrawled on stationery with a letterhead from a title insurance company, the recipe describes in some detail how to prepare a stuffing for chicken or turkey. The formula is extensive in the number of ingredients (11, not including the 5 herbs and spices, or salt and pepper), and in their diversity (3 kinds of nuts and 3 animal proteins). It is unorthodox for an American stuffing in its use of a bread loaf soaked in water, wrung dry and shredded, and in its lack of added fat, broth, raw egg or any other binder.
It also bears the unmistakable balance of fussiness and flexibility that is the hallmark of an experienced and confident cook. Giblets are to be “liver-heart,” and the beef is to be “browned (no oil),” yet certain other details are left flapping in the wind: the amount of spices is not specified, nor the amount of “parsarly.” O.K., the instruction of “1 handful” of grated Parmesan is clear enough, but what to make of the first line — “No garlic” — of the recipe?
For recipe-restoration geeks like us, this was a challenge we couldn’t resist, especially as we head into high season for stuffing. Our goal was to fill in the blanks and produce a stuffing recipe that anyone could complete successfully. Of all the souvenirs of Marilyn’s life available, this was the one we actually wanted.
From the start, we agreed to embrace the period in which the recipe was written, and resisted the temptation to substitute fresh rosemary and ginger for the dried variety. “Fragments” dates the recipe to 1955 or 1956, when Marilyn lived in an apartment at 2 Sutton Place. We conjured up images of her prowling the aisles at D’Agostino’s on First Avenue in a crepe dress and heels (this is the era of “The Seven Year Itch”), and followed along as she purchased a loaf of bread, the ground round and all those jars of dried herbs. Our only true departure — to blend sage, marjoram, ground ginger and nutmeg in place of the commercial poultry seasoning she used — was informed by what typically goes into such products.
Another judgment call was to interpret her “walnuts/ chestnuts/ pinenuts } 1 cup chop nuts” as calling for a third of a cup of each nut. Three small measures of each seemed fussy, but she had three husbands, after all, so why not three nuts? To arrive at the amount of parsley, we let it equal the volume of the onion and the celery, which measured in at two cups each.
The most unnerving thing about the recipe is its laboriousness. More than two hours passed as we soaked and shredded sourdough (to be fair, soggy sourdough nearly shreds itself), peeled hard-boiled eggs, simmered livers in water, browned the beef, cracked pepper, chopped and measured. When the ingredients were finally laid out, they filled 15 ramekins and bowls. Did Marilyn really have this much time on her hands?
When we gingerly tossed everything together in our largest bowl (the recipe yielded more than 20 cups), we were amazed to discover one of the most handsome stuffings we’ve encountered. The odd elements, like the profusion of raisins and the chopped egg, suddenly made sense, becoming pleasant color contrasts. Moreover, the mixture was delicious, a nice balance of vegetables, meats and bold seasonings, just faintly, tonically sweet from the raisins. Even the texture was superior, a fluffy, damp blend that packed well into a chicken cavity and emerged loosely gelled. Subsequent tests employed slight tweaks but the original genius (and the heroic volume) of her recipe remained fundamentally the same.
We asked Anne Mendelson, a food historian who has written for The New York Times, if she could explain the quixotic aspects of the recipe. She was intrigued by the soaked bread, the lack of binder, the use of Parmesan and the aggressive spice blend. She pegged its provenance to San Francisco, citing both the Sutter Street address on the letterhead and the sourdough bread, not well known outside the Bay Area during Marilyn’s career. There were touches that seemed to Ms. Mendelson to have a “sort-of-Italianate look,” like the large amount of raisins, the grated Parmesan, the pine nuts and the spicing. “During Marilyn’s lifetime, oregano would have been unfamiliar to many non-Italian cooks, and rosemary would not have been a usual accent in a poultry stuffing,” Ms. Mendelson wrote in an e-mail.
There were clues to Marilyn’s kitchen fluency in the sale of her personal effects at Christie’s auction house in 1999, in the form of two well-worn cookbooks, with notations in the margins: the 1951 version of “The New Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking-School Cook Book” (as trenchant an all-purpose book as the first half of the 20th century saw) and the 1953 edition of “Joy of Cooking” (which arguably held the same title for the second half of the century). No facsimile of this stuffing recipe can be found in either. (The Fannie Farmer realized $13,800, including commission; “Joy” went for $29,900, and Marilyn’s bright yellow, eight-piece set of enameled Le Creuset pots and pans brought $25,300.)
So we wondered: what might connect Marilyn Monroe, San Francisco and Italian cuisine? As any fan knows by heart, she married Joe DiMaggio at San Francisco City Hall on Jan. 14, 1954. The marriage lasted nine months, during which time she lived mostly with Mr. DiMaggio in a large house on Beach Street in the Marina district. His parents were first-generation immigrants from Ísola delle Fémmine, on the north coast of Sicily, where his relatives were fishermen.
Could Marilyn have picked up this recipe, or at least some cooking tips, from the DiMaggio clan? The pine nuts, the raisins and the Parmesan in the recipe suggest Sicily.
And then there’s this: Joltin’ Joe, eager to assimilate into the American mainstream, was known to have one steadfast request when it came to food: No garlic.