Culinary ventures by celebrities are nothing new: Everyone from Liberace to Miss Piggy has penned a cookbook. In Cookin’ with Coolio, Coolio himself instructs readers on how to prepare delicacies such as cold shrimpin’ and chicken lettuce blunts. Even off the page, Hulk Hogan rumbled with gastronomy in his ill-fated restaurant franchise Pastamania! (punctuation totally his).
But when a recent New York Magazine profile on Grizzly Bear slipped in a mention that the indie band’s bassist, Chris Taylor, was writing a cookbook for Random House, it felt unexpected. When reached for comment, Carolyne Klein, the band’s manager, said, “I know he’s a great cook, so I think it’s a passion project of sorts. ... [It’s] still pretty early in the process.”
Considering that Taylor’s current plan for the book entails little beyond going full-out Walden— that is, holing up and writing in a cabin in the woods after the band’s current touring cycle ends—it’s interesting to wonder how he even got the contract.
Did he approach Random House, or did they approach him? How much confidence in his cooking did the publishers need to have to agree, and how did they gain that confidence? Did he cater a multicourse dinner for them? Did they like it? How big a factor was “Two Weeks” in their decision? Is the title going to be a clever play on “Knife?” The questions are endless. But one question towers above the rest: Why do we trust our beloved celebs in fields aside from the ones that got them famous? Or do we?
That’s not to say that there aren’t many multitalented artists out there. Heck, some people can even act, sing, and dance at the same time. Queen’s Brian May earned a Ph.D. in astrophysics, which probably means he could act, sing, dance, and compute the lifetime of a distant star simultaneously.
But for every Brian May or Ronald Reagan (policies aside, he still managed to become president, act, and make fewer verbal gaffes than Dan Quayle), there are a million Lindsay Lohans (just when you thought you forgot about her ’09 musical stylings) or Jennifer Lopezes (luckily, “Jenny from the Block”got into acting before it was too late for her career), whose endeavors have left trails of both sympathetic embarrassment and scathing criticism in their wake.
To take the high road, maybe the response and encouragement stars receive is genuine: Because they have already achieved success in their respective arenas, their fans want to see them go forth and conquer even more. Madonna, for example, will sell out arenas and dominate the children’s book market (she has 16 volumes currently in print). The essential nature of fandom implies trust in an artist’s creative power and attention to future endeavors.
On the flip side, there is always a certain amount of schadenfreude in public embarrassment. Thanks to YouTube, the world can watch not only trampoline accidents ad nauseam, but also the Countess LuAnn’s “Money Can’t Buy You Class.” It’s funny to watch failure: There’s a reason one of the top videos on YouTube right now is Justin Bieber throwing up onstage, and it’s not because people want to send him teddy bears with “This will blow over in a week” embroidered on their stomachs. Increasingly, America loves to be reminded that its media darlings are also fallible—tabloids exist almost entirely for this purpose.
Still, celebrities are well-recognized brands, and brands sell. Regardless of quality, companies finance these projects because they know the public will lap them up, whether out of admiration or malice. This phenomenon is a fixture of the global pop scene, to the point that it often risks spiraling out of control.
To take one example: In 1988, Elizabeth Taylor began manufacturing her own signature perfumes—the scent that launched a thousand (plus) copycats. Unlike, say, Sean John—that’s right, Sean John—though, Taylor was heavily involved in each step of the creation. I’d be surprised if Sean John has so much as sniffed a tester strip of his “Unforgivable Woman” fragrance.
Earlier in 2012, market researcher NPD Group reported that stores are flooded with over 500 celebrity perfumes a year. That’s some serious investment in products like Mariah Carey’s “Lollipop Bling.” The only possible conclusion to draw is that this stuff actually sells—otherwise, there would be no incentive for making more.
So, why does anyone think advice from Mo’Nique will make them a better cook? (Her book, Never Trust a Skinny Cook, could do battle with Teresa Giudice’s Skinny Italian.) Maybe they like Mo’Nique. Maybe there was a recipe they found interesting. Maybe they’re tired of recipes from Culinary Institute grads and want to learn from a fabulous singer-actress instead. Regardless, it sells, and that’s that. Maybe not in incredible bulk, but there is an audience with money to burn and interest in the material, and there’s no shame in that.
It’s interesting that this branding has now extended into the “non-mainstream mainstream.” While Grizzly Bear does play sold-out shows, they ain’t exactly One Direction—but then again, it’s pretty cool not to be One Direction these days. That’s not to say that’s it’s uncool either, but as every “artsyyy!!! <3” comment on a perfectly normal Facebook photo or quirky moment in a Zooey Deschanel movie reminds us, it’s also no longer uncool to be slightly offbeat. Fun. started as an “indie pop” band, and now they’re holding steady on the Billboard Hot 100.
According to Klein, Taylor is a good cook—and, moreover, he has a fan base that would probably be willing at least to entertain the idea of his recipes. So, turn up the record player in that Brooklyn loft—it’s gonna be a slammin’ dinner party. On the menu? Alligator à la Chris Taylor.