Rich people used to eat rich food

The food in The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Cookbook largely follows the lead from the cover. Lobster, caviar, truffles, veal dishes, and rich chocolate desserts dominate the pages. Even their homey, celebrities-they’re-just-like-us dishes—Ivana Trump and Eva Gabor both share favorite goulash recipes, Randy Travis contributes his favorite fried chicken and buttermilk pie—are all serious rib stickers. No one is talking about heirloom tomatoes or organic anything. In 1991, stars like Gabor and pasta-pusher Joan Collins may have been rich, but they experienced the privation of World War II-era Europe as children, Gabor in Hungary, Collins in England. Special food wasn’t just about exotic ingredients, it was about calories, and plenty of them.

Celebrity food culture now is inextricably linked with wellness—which actually means thinness. From the idea of “clean eating” to the various juices, tonics, and supplements promising to boost everything from your brain power to your sex life featured on Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness hive, Goop, fancy food is much more austere now. Rather than pointing to a simpler past, it promises an unlined future, in which the glow of youth remains incandescent, powered by dried mushroom powder and matcha smoothies.

Rich means something different now

The wealth that Robin Leach chronicled on his television show from 1984 to 1995, has a warm, fuzzy glow to it. Prior to reality television, a shoot in someone’s home was a highly choreographed and set dressed affair. Writing about how the luxury market has changed over the past generation, my Quartzy colleague Marc Bain described old school wealth as “a walled garden.” In this space there were no photo bombs, no selfies, and no gotcha moments. Wealth is always presented with a sort of reverence and gravitas, which is also very much on display in the cookbook. In one section a Bolivian tin heiress invites readers into her private compound in Mexico for a “nouvelle Mexican” menu that includes chicken tacos and “Mexican apple pie.” How very 20th century.

This era ended with the introduction of two shows—MTV Cribs in 2000 and Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire in 2002. Cribs shed any illusion that wealth and taste go together. Its arguably most famous episode involves Mariah Carey’s pets fighting, and the singer compulsively changing outfits throughout the hour-long special. Millionaire challenged the quantitative concept of what being wealthy means. Its original star, Rick Rockwell, was deemed not rich enough when his home proved to be more split-level and less castle, despite claiming net assets of $2 million.

Wealth now is more over the top even, than gilded lobster served on the veranda of a palace. It’s not about obvious, indulgent pleasures, so much as rarified tastes. It’s belonging to a food tribe (paywall). It’s Soylent. It’s flying to a remote Scottish island to eat fermented lamb and local lichens at a restaurant rated one of the best, and more expensive, in the world.

That Demi Moore in “Ghost” haircut was huge in 1991.
That Demi Moore in “Ghost” haircut was huge in 1991.

Famous for being famous

The people featured in The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Cookbook are generally famous for either being born rich or having worked to become rich. They’re royalty or society types, or actors, real estate magnates, caviar brokers, professional athletes. There are a few standouts in the book though, whose fame and fortune are still culturally important.

Martha Stewart and, as they were then known, Bruce and Kris Jenner, offer the most modern dishes in the book by far. Stewart serves a menu with bibb lettuce salad, brie on grilled bread, and sesame chicken in an acorn squash. An apple pie, too, of course. The Jenners feed their eight children grilled swordfish, eggplant, pasta primavera, and brownies for dessert. Vegetable-forward, fresh, flavorful—you could easily envision either of these menus in the August 2018 issue of your favorite food magazine, or at a local bistro.

Stewart built an empire on making her enviable lifestyle accessible to the masses, from her Kmart sheet sets and paint colors, to her meticulous recipes. The Jenners, who at some point in the mid-2000s became the Kardashians, set the standard for being famous for being famous. They took all the lessons from Cribs and Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire and then wrote their own masterclass in being culturally omnipresent without seeming to actually do much of anything.

The lifestyle maven and the fame seekers, these two outliers still have influence in a way that say, Dame Barbara Cartland and her mini pastry shells with shrimp, just doesn’t. While combing through photos from the 90s for Generation Wealth, Greenfield found several shots of Kim Kardashian as a young teenager that she didn’t even realize she had, because the reality star did not yet stand out among her equally privileged peers.

There’s an outlook embedded in our menus, just as there is in how we come by our wealth. You see the early trappings of a new vision of wealth in what young Kim was eating at family dinner, at least according to Leach’s cookbook. Brownies! They might be fabulously wealthy, but the Jenner-Kardashians are just like us. You might not realistically aspire to a castle—or even a living wage—but a pan full of chocolatey squares, and an Instagram account? Those let us see inside the walled garden, just a bit.

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