Cooking with the Stars: Lucille Ball’s Apple John

Cooking with the Stars: Lucille Ball’s Apple John

Lucille Ball cooking
Lucille Ball cooking

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! As the temperature drops, I’ve begun thinking about where Cooking with the Stars was at this time last year. I had decided to turn the concept into a column, but on my own blog, and I had just purchased an edition of Good Housekeeping magazine dated December of 1964. The magazine contains a mini-cookbook with a wide array of celebrity recipes perfect for the holiday season, and while last year I whipped up some delicious batches of Gina Lollobrigida‘s Christmas Wreath Cookies to send to family members, I also knew as soon as I first opened the pages that this cookbook would make a wonderful Cooking with the Stars tradition to revisit every December. So, this month I’m doing exactly that, combining this fantastic vintage find with the delightful seasonal flavors of apples in the wintertime to make an intriguing dessert originally made my an even more intriguing star: Lucille Ball!

Lucille Ball as a toddler, c. 1910s.
Lucille Ball as a toddler, c. 1910s.

Lucille Désirée Ball was born on August 6, 1911, in Jamestown, New York to Désirée “DeDe” Evelyn Ball and Henry Durrell Ball, a lineman for the Bell Telephone Company. Henry was transferred often in his job, which forced the Ball family to travel place to place during Lucy’s formative years. When she was only three years old, however, Henry died of typhoid fever at the age of twenty-seven, while DeDe was pregnant with Lucy’s younger brother Fred. After her father’s passing, Lucy and her family moved in with her maternal grandparents two miles from Jamestown in a town called Celoron, NY, which at the time was a famed resort spot with a theme park by the water and lots of entertainment in the form of vaudeville and theatre.

Four years after Henry’s passing, DeDe married Edward Peterson and Lucy and Fred lived with Peterson’s strict puritan parents while the couple searched for work. When Lucy was caught admiring herself in the house’s only mirror, she was scolded and considered vain, which harmed her self-esteem for years afterward. Her stepfather saw her potential, however, and urged her to audition as a chorus girl.

Lucille Ball in a scene from Five Came Back (1939)
Lucille Ball in a scene from Five Came Back (1939), one of my favorite film performances of hers.

The applause and feeling of gratitude that her audience gave her made Lucy hungry for a life of performing. Around the same time, she became romantically involved with a local beau who was far older than her and someone who her mother considered to be a bad influence, so DeDe decided to send Lucy to the John Murray Anderson School for the Dramatic Arts, which boasted alumni like Bette Davis, in an effort to end her relationship.

Lucy took the bait, but later claimed that “All I learned in drama school was how to be frightened.” Her teachers were harsh and saw no potential for her in show business, but their criticism only lit a flame underneath her, and she began work as a model and in the chorus on stage in shows produced by the likes of Earl Carroll and Florenz Ziegfeld. She landed her fair share of bit parts in the film too, first appearing as an extra in a variety of comedies and shorts in the early thirties and eventually working her way up to substantial scenes in some of the Astaire and Rogers features like Roberta (1935) and Follow the Fleet (1936).

Two years later, Lucy landed a supporting role in yet another film alongside her distant relative Ginger Rogers in Stage Door (1937), and she even tested for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939), but as far as her early work goes, I always treasure her in her role in Five Came Back (1939).

Lucille Ball and Gene Kelly in a publicity photo for Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)
Lucille Ball and Gene Kelly in a gorgeous publicity photo for Du Barry Was a Lady (1943). Technicolor did her wonders!

After that film, Lucy’s career was somewhat stagnant; despite starring in some notable pictures like Dance, Girl Dance (1939) with Maureen O’Hara, Too Many Girls (1940), where she met the love of her life, Desi Arnaz, and The Big Street (1942) with Henry Fonda, audiences still weren’t taking notice of her in a big way just yet. It wasn’t until Ann Sothern passed on the leading role in Du Barry Was A Lady (1943) that Lucy really got the chance to shine in a Technicolor MGM production that was worthy of her larger-than-life persona.

Throughout the decade she became a bonafide movie star, appearing in a multitude of quality productions from MGM and beyond in features like Ziegfeld Follies (1946), Easy to Wed (1946), and Lured (1947).

In 1948, Ball joined the cast of My Favorite Husband, a successful radio series in which she portrayed a zany housewife. When asked to develop it for television, she was receptive to the idea, but only if she could work with her real-life husband Desi Arnaz. Their marriage was rocky at the time due to his infidelity, her jealous streak, and their demanding work schedules, and at first, the network wasn’t sure how well American viewers would handle an interracial marriage on television. It wasn’t until the couple tested the idea in a traveling stage show that CBS decided to produce I Love Lucy (1951-57).

Lucille Ball and Dezi Arnaz in I Love Lucy
I Love Lucy was a groundbreaking television series for its time and is still considered one of the greatest sitcoms even today.

I Love Lucy, spearheaded by Lucille Ball’s own production company Desilu Studios, proved early on that it was incredibly before its time. Not only was Desilu Studios the first TV production company helmed by a woman, it was also one of the first television shows to be filmed in front of a live studio audience, on reused adjacent sets, and most importantly, it was one of the first shows to be filmed on actual film reels rather than kinescope. Kinescope was more commonly used in the early days of television, especially for live shows such as What’s My Line? (1950-75), but the quality of these productions resulted in a far inferior print; it was Lucy’s astute decision to film her show on reels that allowed it to live on in the pristine condition that it’s in today.

After I Love Lucy reached its end, Lucille Ball continued to star in a variety of spinoffs like The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (1957-60), The Lucy Show (1962-68), and Here’s Lucy (1968-74), while also producing shows like Star Trek (1966-70) and Mission: Impossible (1966-75), and she even starred in a few more critically acclaimed movies such as Critic’s Choice (1963) and Yours, Mine, and Ours (1968). In the final years of her life, Ball mentored other funny ladies of the small screen like Barbara Eden and Carol Burnett and starred in one final television show of her own, Life With Lucy (1986).

She passed away on April 26, 1989, at the age of seventy-seven of a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm. She was cremated and initially interred at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles, but in 2002 her children moved her remains to her family plot at Lake View Cemetery in Jamestown, New York.

Lucille Ball’s Apple John

For the filling:

  • 2 ¾ pounds cooking apples, thinly sliced and peeled (I used Pink Lady apples)
  • ½ cup of sugar
  • ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon grated lemon peel
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • ¼ cup of water

For the biscuits:

  • 2 cups Bisquick
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 tablespoons melted butter
  • ½ cup milk

  1. Heat oven to 375 degrees F. Grease a 2-quart casserole dish.
  2. Fill casserole with apples, sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, lemon peel, lemon juice, and water. Toss together with a fork.
  3. Bake, covered, 1 hour or until apples are tender.
  4. Turn oven heat up to 450 degrees F.
  5. In a bowl, combine Bisquick and sugar. Quickly stir in melted butter and milk.
  6. Drop, by rounded tablespoonfuls, around the top edge of casserole, and one in the center of the biscuit ring.
  7. Bake, uncovered, 12 to 15 minutes or until biscuits are golden and done.
  8. Cool slightly. Serve warm, with vanilla ice cream on top of each serving.

Makes 9 servings.

Lucille Ball's Apple John
My take on Lucille Ball’s Apple John!

As soon as I read this recipe in its entirety, I believed that I had a hit on my hands. To me, it basically looks like apple pie filling with biscuits on top instead of a top and bottom pie crust, and I thought that this recipe was essentially fool-proof for that reason. Everything started out great with the preparation as I listened to Nat King Cole Christmas tunes and thinly sliced the apples, but as I poured the lemon juice into the mixture and added the lemon rind, my mind flashed back to a horrible experience that I had in my early days of making classic movie star recipes. It was another holiday season a few years ago not too unlike this one, and I spent what felt like half the day preparing Jimmy Stewart’s Apple Pie recipe. I had never made an apple pie recipe before, and as I painstakingly sliced each apple, I was so scared of the apples browning that I added more and more lemon juice, not thinking anything of how this would affect the end result. As I proudly presented and served my pie to my family, what I hoped would be a bunch of happy faces were actually sour ones, for obvious reasons!

Ultimately, I think the lemon juice did this recipe in as well, though not quite as terrible as my first apple dessert! While the vanilla ice cream balanced the sour flavor out well, I would halve the amount of lemon juice and zest, or even just omit it altogether. Who really needs lemon juice in a dessert like this, anyway? My other issue with this dish was the use of Bisquick. I had never used it before, and at the start, the biscuits seemed to mold together nicely, but the smell and taste were just strange to me, especially paired with the over-lemoned filling. I definitely enjoy the idea of a biscuit-topped apple john, but I think handmade is the best way to go here. All in all, I’m so glad that I tried Lucy’s recipe out for the holiday season, and I give it four Vincents! Her cranberry sauce recipe is still my favorite (and honestly one of my favorite Old Hollywood recipes of all time), but I think with a few adjustments, this could be a slam dunk!

Vincent Price Rating 4
Ball’s Apple John gets 4 Vincents!

–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.

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2 Responses to Cooking with the Stars: Lucille Ball’s Apple John

  1. Sara Stewart says:

    I am definitely making this, but will probably make homemade biscuit to top it. I was so excited to see this, Lucille Ball was my Dad’s absolute favourite and definitely mine. Thank you!

  2. Laurie says:

    I’ve bookmarked this for when I get a new oven! 🙂 It sounds easy and with 4 Vincents, it must be pretty good. Off to search for the cranberry recipe…

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