Charles Phoenix is a performer, humorist, chef and author who explores America's classic and kitschy pop culture -- past and present -- and predicts retro-inspired, future trends. The Los Angeles Times has called him the "King of Retro" and fans enjoy his unique spin and genuine reverence for all things Americana. Phoenix brings his experience to entertaining.
Noelle Carter: You were into retro Americana before it was considered cool. What drew you to our nostalgic, kitschy past?
Charles Phoenix (Anne Cusack / © 2013 Los Angeles Times)
Charles Phoenix: I think I was born with it really. The No. 1 thing for me was cars. When I was a little kid, my dad was a used-car dealer, so I was completely obsessed with old, vintage cars. The vintage cars then were the ones with big fins.
NC: They have so much personality.
CP: I got obsessed with that, then I started with architecture and vintage clothing, then vintage photography, which led to my interest in vintage food, even though I've always been a foodie all along.
NC: You're known for many things, but you're really known for your slideshows.
CP: My retro slideshows.
NC: Where do you get your slides?
CP: I've been collecting other peoples' old Kodachrome slides now for 20 years. They just come to me now -- for the last 10 years they've just arrived on my back porch. Rarely do I seek them out. They come to me.
NC: You find a way to infuse this sense of Americana from these slides in everything that you do. Summer is such a big time for entertaining -- it's more laid back. How would you approach a summer party?
CP: No. 1: around a pool. One thing that I want to do with a party this summer is give the gearheads something to do. They're going to do a performance.
I saw in a magazine from the late 50s these floral pool floats. If you had a party, you'd put this in your pool. You'd have to put it there when the kids were done swimming, but you put the floral float in there and it's something like a ladybug or a unicorn.
Actually, I want two. Then I want underneath it for there to be remote-control apparatuses. Then the gearheads in the family would have a remote-control floral pool fight.
NC: Fun for kids of all ages. You can't entertain without a spread. What would you serve at this party?
CP: Inchezonya: It's enchiladas and lasagne finally get married at last. It's a fusion dish of two American classics. It is potluck perfection. [Ed. note: Watch Phoenix's video on making Inchezonya here.]
NC: How do you come up with these dishes?
CP: I sit and dream them up all day. I love cooking and everything, but I always want to take it to the next place.
I'm really into the evolution of our menu in general. I'm in shock over how in the last 10 years, classic American comfort food has truly become the food. It is our national cuisine. Hamburgers, hot dogs, and macaroni and cheese -- that's American food. You go to these really snooty parties and stuff, and they're serving sliders and french fries.
NC: You have famous chefs exploring classic American dishes like fried chicken.
CP: They're all doing hamburger restaurants. That's the thing about this stuff, it's so good. Hamburgers are delicious, so are hot dogs, so is fried chicken -- there's no crime against it. I love everyone doing their own macaroni and cheese; macaroni and cheese is great.
I'm also into cakes -- I invented the Cherpumple.
NC: Would you explain the Cherpumple?
CP: The Cherpumple is my pie-stuffed cake. It's the turducken of desserts. It's a three-layer round cake. Each layer has a pie baked into it: cherry, pumpkin and apple. Cherpumple is the name. [Ed. note: Watch Phoenix's video on making Cherpumple here.]
The cherry goes into a white layer, the pumpkin goes into a yellow layer and the apple goes into a spice layer. It's a cream cheese frosting. It is absolutely a crowd-wower-pleaser. It transcends class. That's the Cherpumple.
NC: It sounds like food and a showpiece all rolled into one.
CP: It is. I'm into kitchen crafting as well. My new recipe that I'm working on right now is called Bambrosinana -- that's the fusion of banana pudding and ambrosia. Ambrosia is what I started with first, because in the slides I collected -- the old Kodachrome slides from the 50s and 60s -- I kept seeing pictures of people's dinners in the 50s and 60s, and I kept seeing ambrosia on the table.
NC: It was a staple.
CP: You go online and there are a ton of ambrosia recipes. I brought it down to the bare essentials of ambrosia. The crowd-pleasing ambrosia is fruit cocktail that you have to drain -- 24 if not 48 hours in the refrigerator -- before you mix in either Cool Whip, or if you're into the real stuff, you can do heavy whipping cream.
NC: Draining would make the fruit a little chewier?
CP: Dryer -- it's delicious that way. It's fresh fruit cocktail, coconut, mini-marshmallows and Cool Whip or whipped cream. Four ingredients. It's the easiest thing in the world. I tint it pink and people go nuts. So you've got your pink ambrosia.
NC: Food coloring is our friend.
CP: Food coloring is our friend in fun foods, absolutely. Especially cakes and sweet things. Fun foods are often food-colored.
You can serve my Seven-layer Soda Pop Rocks Cake, which is a seven-layer cake made with 7UP -- it's a white cake and then you put the bright food colorings with the Pop Rocks.
Recipe: Seven-layer Soda Pop Rocks Cake
NC: I love the Pop Rocks, they continue to fizz. It's fun.
CP: It's about the presentation, it's about the coming together, it's about having the moment of service as well. Every dish that you make should be presented with a moment like, "Look at this."
NC: We eat food with our eyes first.
CP: We do, so I want it to look fun. I want it to look festive. I don't want it to look too perfect either. I'm not about fine food, I'm about fun food.