Cooking with the Stars: Elizabeth Taylor’s Chicken with Avocado and Mushrooms
It may be freezing outside, but here I am with the perfect dish this month to warm you back up again! February is all about Elizabeth Taylor, the darling of the silver screen who I’ve admired for as long as I can remember. To me, Elizabeth simply personified perfection, from her striking violet eyes to her demure voice and her impeccable sense of style. There are few people that I want to emulate more, and no woman has walked the earth that I believe is her equal. I’ve been dying to pay tribute to this astonishing and radiant actress for the longest time, and I felt that her birthday month would be the perfect opportunity for me to discuss her life in pictures and her delectable recipe. Just the opportunity to cook something that she enjoyed feels like a privilege to me, and I hope that you’ll read on and learn all about Elizabeth and how you can enjoy her recipe too!
Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was born on February 27, 1932, at Heathwood, her parents’ London estate. Elizabeth, as well as her older brother Howard, were both dual citizens of the United Kingdom and the United States, as their father, art dealer Francis Taylor, and their mother, retired stage actress Sara Sothern, were both United States citizens who originated from Kansas. At the age of seven, Elizabeth’s family decided to return to America after receiving news of the impending Second World War. The family settled in Beverly Hills, where Francis’ art gallery attracted Hollywood interest from names such as Hedda Hopper. It wasn’t long before the youthful and striking Elizabeth received attention from the entertainment industry as well, and she quickly acquired contract offers from both Universal and MGM. While mother Sara was initially against the idea of little Elizabeth entering films, she eventually gave in and saw the offers as opportunities for her daughter to fit into American culture.
The Taylors accepted Universal’s bid, but after appearing in only one film, There’s One Born Every Minute (1942), the studio dropped the promising starlet within a year. Universal’s casting director particularly disliked Taylor, stating: “The kid has nothing. Her eyes are too old, she doesn’t have the face of a child.” For many young hopefuls, the move may have seemed like the end of Elizabeth’s film career, but MGM was still taken with Taylor, especially after seeing her stellar audition for a significant role in Hollywood’s first Lassie film, Lassie Come Home (1943). She was perfect for the part, and her performance earned her a seven-year contract with the studio. Afterward, Elizabeth filled her time with minor parts in MGM productions like Jane Eyre (1944) and The White Cliffs of Dover (1944), all while attending school in a schoolhouse that MGM built on the lot especially for its child stars. Elizabeth’s schoolmates included the likes of Judy Garland, Russ Tamblyn, and Mickey Rooney, the costar of her next film, National Velvet (1944).
While MGM knew that they had the right actress to play Velvet Brown, a girl who dreams of training her horse to compete in the Grand National, production was put on hold to give Elizabeth time to grow and practice her riding. The studio also wanted to dye her hair and change her name, but she and her family refused. Taylor dominated the box office with her charm and her natural beauty, causing one critic to note, “She is rapturously beautiful. I hardly know or care whether she can act or not.” Along with the success of National Velvet (1944) came a new contract with a raise in salary for Taylor, but also what she considered the end of her childhood. Within the next few years, MGM groomed Elizabeth for stardom, comparing her in movie magazines to actresses decades older than her and casting her in movies like Cynthia (1947) and A Date with Judy (1948), which highlighted her ingenue status, yet displayed her opposite numerous romantic interests and hinted at the roles to come.
The start of the 1950s was also the start of Elizabeth’s full ascent into leading lady status. At the age of eighteen, she not only became an onscreen bride in the iconic Father of the Bride (1950) but also an offscreen bride, marrying Nicky Hilton, Jr. in a highly publicized ceremony arranged by MGM. Virtually all of her films from this decade were box office hits, and the majority still remain classics today, like A Place in the Sun (1951), which starred Elizabeth opposite Montgomery Clift, her dearest friend. While occasionally Elizabeth made films that she felt were beneath her, such as Love is Better Than Ever (1952) and Ivanhoe (1952), she continued to play powerful roles that had a great impact like The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954), Giant (1956), and Raintree County (1957). By 1958, Elizabeth had blossomed into a mature and talented leading lady, but her third marriage to producer Mike Todd convinced the actress that she should leave motion pictures and raise her family. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) was supposed to be her final film role, but during production, tragedy struck when Todd was killed in a plane crash. A distraught Taylor took only three weeks off shooting to grieve before returning to work and completing the film.
After attempting to make good on her promise to leave movies once the picture wrapped, MGM reminded Taylor that she was still obligated to make two more films for the studio, which she did with Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) and BUtterfield 8 (1960). Both displayed Taylor’s brilliance in front of a camera, but the latter cemented Taylor as a true legend, earning her the first of two Academy Awards for her performance. After three years offscreen, Taylor decided to return for her first film after parting ways with MGM: Cleopatra (1963), which introduced Elizabeth to the man she considered the love of her life: Richard Burton. Despite their very public affair, the two went on to make eleven movies together, including The VIPs (1963), The Sandpiper (1965), and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), a legendary film that earned Taylor her second Oscar.
She continued to star regularly in films for the next decade, mostly in movies that are now considered cult classics by Elizabeth Taylor fans, but by the end of the 1970s, her career in films was largely over. After leaving films, Elizabeth focused her attention on building a fragrance empire, earning nearly a billion dollars from perfume sales alone. She also devoted much of her time to activism, standing up for those fighting AIDS when even the US president would not and creating the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, which still grants millions of dollars to programs assisting those affected with AIDS. Taylor continued to fight for this cause until her passing on March 23, 2011, at the age of 79. She’s interred at Forest Lawn Glendale in Glendale, California.
Elizabeth Taylor’s Chicken with Avocado and Mushrooms
- 1 avocado, peeled and cubed
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 2 (2 1/2 pound) chickens, cut into serving pieces
- 1/4 cup butter
- 3 finely chopped shallots
- 3 tablespoons cognac
- 1/3 cup dry white wine
- 1 cup whipping cream
- 2 cups sliced fresh mushrooms
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1 cup chicken stock
- Chopped fresh parsley, for garnish
- Sprinkle avocado with lemon juice. Cover and refrigerate.
- Season chicken with salt and pepper. In a large heavy skillet, over low heat, heat 3 to 4 tablespoons butter and sauté chicken until juices run yellow when it is pricked with a fork, about 35 to 40 minutes. Use two skillets if necessary, adding more butter as needed.
- Transfer cooked chicken to a serving dish. Cover loosely with aluminum foil and keep warm in a 300-degree F oven for 15 minutes while preparing the sauce.
- To make the sauce, add shallots to skillet. Cook over medium heat, stirring and scraping sides and bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon.
- Add cognac and wine and bring to a boil. Boil until the mixture has almost evaporated.
- Add cream and boil 5 minutes longer.
- Add chicken stock to cream mixture and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thick.
- While sauce cooks, sauté mushrooms over high heat in butter.
- Add the mushrooms, remaining cognac, and avocado cubes to the sauce. Stir until well blended.
- Pour over chicken and sprinkle with parsley.
As a result of this column, many people have asked me questions about my cooking experiences, many of them wondering if I’m even an experienced cook at all. The honest answer to that inquiry is no, and the truth is that classic movie stars largely taught me how to cook in the first place. I’ve learned so many techniques and new things while recreating the recipes of Old Hollywood actors and actresses, and this recipe was no different, as I faced for the first time one of the biggest hurdles for any budding cook: how to disassemble a chicken. My guess is that chickens are much bigger now than they used to be, so it was impossible to find two two-and-a-half pound chickens at the store. My options were either purchasing one five-pound chicken or two cornish game hens that were about two pounds apiece. I went for the latter, and their size made them difficult to take apart, especially for someone who had never even taken apart a normal-sized chicken before. Still, the extra bit of effort was worth it, because this dish was delicious. Believe me when I say that it’s the kind of luxurious dish that you need to watch during the weekend with a large glass of wine and a fancy movie.
That’s exactly what I did when I recreated Elizabeth’s recipe, finishing off the bottle of wine that I used for the sauce while relaxing for a splendid night in watching The VIPs (1963), one of Taylor’s most underrated films in my opinion. I envied her fashion and jewelry, and part of me felt like I was her while I nibbled on the hen, eating a full plate and saving enough of the leftovers for another meal the next day. It was terrific! I don’t exaggerate when I say that this is easily one of the most delicious classic film star recipes that I’ve tried. While it easily earns a full five Vincents in my book, I do have to issue the same warning that someone gave me before making this: Cornish hen is rich, and if you decide to use it as I did and combine it with the thick, heavy sauce, it will likely be difficult to digest. I also find it surprising that the same actress who penned an entire diet book recommends incorporating butter into nearly every other step of this recipe. It’s more than worth it, but this is truly a “treat yourself” kind of dish. Isn’t that what Valentine’s Day month is all about, anyway? If you’re thinking about making it, just do it! You deserve it!
–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.