Cooking with the Stars: Debbie Reynolds’ Eggplant Casserole
As we all navigate this strange new reality, I like to find comfort in the things that make me the happiest and the things that I find familiar. I had already intended to spotlight Debbie Reynolds in this April edition of Cooking with the Stars, not only because she has been and always will be one of the actresses I cherish the most, but also because she would have turned 88 on April 1st. I think it’s fate that I was able to make her recipe and take the time to keep her in my thoughts this month out of all months though because Debbie and her work has always felt like a reassuring security blanket to me. No other actress has possessed her unique ability to make me smile and laugh, even on my cloudiest days, and I couldn’t be more glad that I chose to honor her during dark times like these. I was privileged enough to be able to write her a letter three months before her passing in 2016, and she sent me her autograph in return. Her message contained one simple word that has stuck with me through the years and makes me feel like I can get through anything: ‘happiness’. I hope all of you get the chance to try Debbie’s comforting recipe and I hope you all let a little bit of happiness into your lives while we attempt to get through this together.
Debbie Reynolds was born Mary Frances Reynolds on April 1, 1932, in El Paso, TX to mother Maxene “Minnie” Harman, a laundress and homemaker, and Raymond Francis “Ray” Reynolds, a railroad carpenter. Mary and her older brother grew up in poverty, and she would later admit this fact openly, stating in a 1963 interview: “We may have been poor, but we always had something to eat, even if Dad had to go out on the desert and shoot jackrabbits.” Her family moved to Burbank, CA in 1939, and her friends who knew her throughout school claimed that she was nothing like the glamorous and popular movie star that she would later become. One remarked, “They never found her attractive in school. She was cute, but sort of tomboyish, and her family never had any money to speak of. She never dressed well or drove a car. And, I think, during all the years in school, she was invited to only one dance.”
In 1948, Mary entered the Miss Burbank Contest, not expecting to win. In fact, she entered purely because she desired the blouse and free lunch that was offered to the contestants. Shockingly, Mary won first prize and suddenly found herself being fought over by two of Hollywood’s biggest studios: Warner Bros and MGM, who decided to flip a coin to decide which of the two would offer her a contract.
Warner Bros won out, and it was Jack Warner who gave Mary the moniker of Debbie, but she ended up only making two films, June Bride (1948) and The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady (1950), over a period of two years with the studio before their dismissal of musicals led her to MGM. By contrast, MGM treated Debbie Reynolds like a star almost as soon as she entered its ranks, giving her the chance to spread her wings in smaller parts in Two Weeks with Love (1950) and Mr. Imperium (1951) before casting her in the biggest role of her career: aspiring ingenue Kathy Selden in perhaps the greatest musical of all time, Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Despite how effortless Debbie appeared onscreen, she would consider this the most difficult film of her career. She later remarked, “Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and childbirth were the two hardest things I ever had to do in my life.” The film wasn’t a critical success at the time of its release, but it did serve well as a breakout picture for Debbie, allowing her to smoothly transition into other delightful, youth-oriented musicals of the mid-1950s such as I Love Melvin (1953), The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (1953), and the underrated Give a Girl a Break (1953). She even starred as the world’s most tame juvenile delinquent opposite Dick Powell in Susan Slept Here (1954) and claimed to develop an offscreen crush on the married star, who was twenty-eight years her senior.
In the latter half of the 1950s, Debbie Reynolds continued to stretch her talents in musicals, but her characters grew more mature and marriage-oriented with each feature as she romanced Frank Sinatra in The Tender Trap (1956), planned a wedding opposite newcomer Rod Taylor in The Catered Affair (1956), and juggled the responsibilities of motherhood in Bundle of Joy (1956) alongside her new real-life husband, crooner Eddie Fisher. At this point in her career, Debbie was also a prolific recording artist, as her recording of the song “Tammy” from the film Tammy and the Bachelor (1957) earned her a gold record and was the best-selling single by a female vocalist that year.
She continued to transition from a co-ed cutie to a full-fledged leading lady with films like The Mating Game (1959), The Rat Race (1960), which is perhaps her strongest dramatic performance, and the epic all-star spectacle How the West Was Won (1962). Two years later, Debbie would fight for one of the most critically acclaimed roles of her career: that of Molly Brown in The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964). At first director Charles Walters did not believe that Reynolds could handle the role, wanting Shirley MacLaine to play the part instead, but Debbie proved her worth through her dedication and long hours during filming, eventually changing Walters’ mind. Her performance led to her only Oscar nomination.
The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) turned out to be one of Reynolds’ final golden age films, and she followed the achievement with only four more features during the remainder of the decade: Goodbye, Charlie (1964), The Singing Nun (1966), Divorce American Style (1967), and How Sweet it Is! (1968). From there, Debbie continued appearing on television and on stage in various theater and cabaret productions. Some of her most memorable later works include voicing Charlotte the spider in Charlotte’s Web (1973), her Emmy-nominated role as Grace’s mother on Will & Grace (1999-2006), and her delightful portrayal of Aggie Cromwell in the Halloweentown series of films on Disney Channel.
She also co-starred opposite two former rivals in These Old Broads (2001), which was written for television by her daughter Carrie Fisher. In 2016, she began work on the documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (2016), which gave viewers an in-depth look at the intertwined lives of Debbie and her daughter. Tragically, on December 27, 2016, in the later stages of production, Carrie Fisher passed away after spending four days in intensive care following a medical emergency that she endured during a commercial flight. The weight of her daughter’s passing proved to be too much for Debbie to bear, and her final words to her son Todd Fisher the following day were, “I miss her so much, I want to be with Carrie.” She suffered a massive stroke and passed away shortly afterward on December 28, 2016, just one day after her daughter. They are buried together at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Hollywood Hills, CA.
Debbie Reynolds’ Eggplant Casserole
- 1 (1 ¼ pound) eggplant
- 4 ounces Swiss cheese, shredded
- 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 3 medium tomatoes, sliced
- ¼ cup butter, diced
- 1 cup tomato sauce
- 1 cup seasoned breadcrumbs
- Salt and pepper
- Peel eggplant and slice in ¼-inch thick rounds. Place in a bowl with about 2 tablespoons salt and enough water to cover. Let stand 20 minutes, then drain. (Please see my thoughts below on why you should NOT do this step.)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease bottom and sides of a 13 x 9-inch baking dish.
- Mix cheeses in a bowl. Remove and reserve one-third of the cheese mixture.
- Layer a third of the eggplant and half of the tomato slices in the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
- Top with half of the remaining cheese mixture. Repeat layers once.
- Top with remaining eggplant and dot with butter.
- Pour tomato sauce over top, sprinkle with breadcrumbs, then the reserved cheese mixture.
- Cover with foil. and bake for 1 hour.
- Uncover and bake 15 minutes longer or until eggplant is tender. Serves 8.
Usually, when I write up these reviews, I attempt to recreate a recipe that I have never made before. This is one of the few exceptions. Back when I was simply testing Old Hollywood recipes at home, before I began writing about them, this recipe became one of the least successful dishes I ever tried to make. The entire issue lied in the first step, which encourages the cook to soak eggplant slices in salted water before adding them to the casserole. If you’ve ever worked with eggplant before, you may know that it’s probably the most absorbent vegetable out there and that the goal when you’re cooking with it is to remove any moisture from the eggplant, and definitely not add any. Why Debbie recommends soaking the eggplant in water before cooking it is anyone’s guess, but I’ve always been a stickler for accuracy when it comes to recreating Old Hollywood recipes, so the first time that I attempted this dish, I soaked the eggplant in water and it predictably turned into a soggy, watery mess that I couldn’t even bring myself to photograph. That recipe has been in the back of my mind for a couple of years now, and when I decided that I would honor Debbie Reynolds this month, I knew that I had a few different (possibly more likely to be successful) recipes to choose from. Still, something in me really made me want to give this casserole another go knowing what I know now.
This time around, I sliced the eggplant, salted the slices on both sides, and pressed them between two layers of paper towels for twenty minutes so the slices would get rid of any excess moisture. Then I continued the recipe as normal, though I do admit that I used a lot more tomato sauce than the recipe stated because I was already altering the recipe and I just couldn’t help myself. I think perhaps I added too much sauce, as the casserole was still rather messy upon serving, but it was still worlds better than my previous try. It was quite delicious, almost like a simpler and quicker attempt at eggplant parmesan. If I were given the option between this casserole and real eggplant parmesan, I would still go with the latter, but I think this one might just win out because of how fast and easy it was to assemble. It’s a dish that you can get into the oven in less than half an hour, and while it still takes an hour to cook, it’s more than worth it in the end and you really spend most of the time just waiting it out rather than slaving over a hot stove. For that reason, I’d definitely recommend this recipe with my alterations and give this one four Vincents! If I’m ever craving eggplant, this will likely be my go-to from now on. If you’re still stuck at home and you find yourself having to cook, try this easy recipe and pair it with one of Debbie’s uplifting films! I promise that combination will chase the blues away in no time!
–Samantha Ellis for Classic Movie Hub
Samantha resides in West Chester, Pennsylvania and is the author of Musings of a Classic Film Addict, a blog that sheds light on Hollywood films and filmmakers from the 1930s through the 1960s. Her favorite column that she pens for her blog is Cooking with the Stars, for which she tests and reviews the personal recipes of stars from Hollywood’s golden age. When she isn’t in the kitchen, Samantha also lends her voice and classic film knowledge as cohost of the Ticklish Business podcast alongside Kristen Lopez and Drea Clark, and proudly serves as President of TCM Backlot’s Philadelphia Chapter. You can catch up with her work by following her @classicfilmgeek on Twitter.