Emily Marshall, the food stylist for ABC’s ‘60s-set drama The Astronaut Wives Club, may have the best job in Summer TV. She’d been collecting vintage cookbooks for years, just as a weird obsession, when the show’s prop master, who also happens to be a friend, said he wanted to hire her for the series. To show producers the kind of dishes she envisioned the spouses bringing to launch parties, she made a Pinterest board using mostly vintage food ads, which provided their own inspiration. “Food ads at the time pretty much always included a recipe because the food manufacturers of America were putting all these new products to market and they wanted to encourage woman to cook with them. That’s why food kind of turned really strange all of a sudden,” Marshall explains. “You could view their picture of the finished product, like, 'Make this delicious dish using Chicken of the Sea Tuna,’ and they’d have these totally weird names and be, like, tuna rolled in a pancake on a bed of macaroni. I mean, completely bizarre stuff.”
Ergo, Marshall’s mission: “I used to say to people, 'What I’m trying to triangulate is like one part terrifying, gross, or weird; one part, 'Oh, what is that? That makes me curious’; and one part, 'That looks delicious and I totally want to eat it.’”
We asked Marshall, whose work you can admire on Instagram, to give us a culinary tour of her favorite and most challenging dishes. Bon appétit!
"I made a meatloaf shaped like the moon,” Marshall says. “I made a big dome of meatloaf, and then after I cooked the meatloaf, I frosted it in potato buds, like dehydrated mashed potatoes icing essentially, that I had dyed various shades of pale blue. And then with the flat back of a spoon, I carved craters into it, so it would look like the moon. And then I put a tiny toothpick-sized American flag on it. It’s completely cuckoo.”
Crown Roast of Frankfurters
“The prop master was like, 'I really want you to make the Crown Roast of Frankfurters,’ and I was like, 'Oh, yeah, that’s going to happen. Trust me.’ Because it’s just a bizarre Weight Watchers recipe from 1969. Don’t ask me how cabbage salad and hot dogs is diet food, but that’s what Weight Watchers thought it was. If you Google 'Crown Roast of Frankfurters,’ you’ll see the Weight Watchers card. I basically copied it with a few little tweaks here and there,” Marshall says. “You are supposed to take hot dogs, cut them in half, and broil them so that they get kind of a curl on them and start to bend. You leave them connected by the skin, and then you pin all of them together with toothpicks. You fill the center with a cabbage salad that’s dressed down in a poppy seed dressing, and then you put that in the oven and you roast it. It’s supposed to be like a crown roast of lamb or a crown roast of pork, but it’s a hot dog crown roast — that’s completely insane.”
"What took me the longest is, I recreated a 1974 Bon Appétit recipe called a Shrimp Tree. It’s a cone-shaped Styrofoam form that you’re supposed to wrap in tulle, and then you put toothpicks into cold, cooked, peeled shrimp and jam the toothpicks into the cone. Then you’re supposed to take pieces of parsley and weave them into the tulle, so you basically make like a Christmas tree that is covered in shrimp decorations. That thing took hours to make for this Christmas party in a later episode,” Marshall says. “My fingers were literally pruney with Spanish olive brine, because you put a Spanish olive on the toothpick before you pierce it through the shrimp. It’s completely crazy, and it’s huge. It’s like the size of my torso.”
BBQ Jell-O Salad
“I always wanted to make this thing,” Marshall admits. “It’s in the Joys of Jell-O cookbook, put out by the Jell-O manufacturing company. You make Jell-O that tastes like BBQ sauce, basically. At the time, they made tomato Jell-O; I used lemon Jell-O and then just put in all sorts of crazy stuff, like Worcestershire sauce and vinegar, to get it that dark brown color, and to get it sort of approaching the right flavor, condensed tomato soup. You cut out cubes, and then those Jell-O BBQ cubes go on a bed of lettuce with baby shrimp, grape tomatoes, and hardboiled eggs. The picture in the cookbook is so incredible, it’s a black and white photo, with a spatula coming in frame with a big BBQ cube sitting on it, like it’s about to be placed onto the salad. It really just lit up my imagination. There is a lunch scene [in the show] and that is actually on the table. I doubt if the camera ever actually sees the BBQ cubes, but the girls were like, 'What the hell is this?’ And I told them, 'Those are BBQ Jell-O cubes,’ and they just looked at me like, 'You have lost your mind.’”
Erin Cummings, who plays Deke Slayton’s wife Marge, did taste it, Marshall reports. “Erin and Yvonne [Strahovski, who plays Rene Carpenter] were inevitably the ones who tried things just for the sake of wanting to know what they tasted like.”
Cheese Porcupine and Meatloaf Cupcakes
“There were a lot of times where I would be like, 'Oh, this is a Rene dish’ or 'This is definitely what Betty [Grissom, played by JoAnna Garcia Swisher] made,’” Marshall says. “The scripts have, 'Betty is making a snack,’ and so yeah, I wanted to make the snacks be something that Betty would make. There’s a line in a scene with these meatloaf cupcakes, where somebody says, 'Betty would love that. Betty’s a big fan of clever food.'”
And, Marshall adds, “Betty does like a cheese porcupine. That’s scripted. It’s a cheese ball with little pretzels making it look like a porcupine with little olives for eyes. She’s the one who would want to try something new and fun.”
A sample of the other ladies’ styles: Louise Shepard, played by Dominique McElligott, made the BBQ Jell-O Salad. “I always try to have her food be a little more polished,” Marshall explains. “Louise was raised around the Du Ponts. She kind of fancied herself to be a more elegant person, so I tried to have her food speak to that a little bit.“
Rene, on the other hand, was, in Marshall’s mind, not a great cook. “Kind of about the flash and not about knowing how to cook,” she says. “So her food was often really brightly colored. And in this show, there was so much food, I took on determining the dishware that the food arrived on also. 'This is a brightly colored cake that is going to go on a brightly colored plate because that’s what Rene is all about.’”
BBQ Weenie Loaf, aka The Weenie Sarlacc Pit
This is the dish that was the biggest hit with the crew. “What you do is, you take a big loaf of bread, you cut into it to make slices. In the pockets that you make, you put grated cheese, and BBQ sauce, and hot dogs cut in half, so the hot dogs are kind of sticking out the top. It’s from a Better Homes and Gardens BBQ cookbook. You’re supposed to wrap the whole thing in tinfoil and cook it on the grill. I don’t know why anybody would do that. I broiled it,” Marshall says. “But there’s a scene in Return of the Jedi where Jabba the Hutt is trying to kill Luke Skywalker, and they’re going to throw him in this weird monster pit that has like teeth. That thing is called the Sarlacc pit. My boyfriend, who I met on this show and am now engaged to and will marry next year, is a very funny person and really into sci-fi and comic books. When I made that thing, he said, 'Oh my God, it’s a weenie Sarlacc pit.’ When I carried it in, numerous other people on the show said the very same thing. It looks almost like a caterpillar on its back. It’s completely bananas.”
It was a memorable day on set. “Usually as a food stylist, I make the components, and then I show up and I place the food on the dishes on set before the scene, because you can’t get all this food artfully arranged and then drive it. It will fall apart in the car,” she says. “But on this day, they switched the shooting schedule around kind of at the last minute. I was at home cooking the food and wasn’t supposed to be on set until four hours later. And they started calling me saying, 'Look, we need the food right now.’ So I fully plated the food and just drove it over dish by dish. The first drop that I made, our director said to me, 'Marg is going to carry something into frame. Do you have something that Marg can carry into frame?’ And I had cooked the weenie thing already. It was sitting at home cooling on tinfoil in my house. I was like, 'Oh, I know what she’s going to carry into frame.’ And so I rushed home and grabbed it, and I put it on a platter with a bunch of grated cabbage around it. I just happened to walk into set right before they needed to shoot it, so Erin, who plays Marg, arrives on set, and she’s like, 'Emily, what do you have for me?’ And I was like, 'Here you go,’ and she just screamed. She was like, 'This is the best thing you’ve made. Of course you made this for Marg to carry.’ The way it walked into set and got airtime, everybody noticed it.”
There were deviled eggs at every single event that involved the ladies bringing food, and deviled eggs are an extremely time-consuming thing to make, Marshall says, noting that Marge is the queen of them. “Often the things that would take the longest to make would be the things that I would have to make the most of because someone was going to eat over and over again [while shooting multiple takes]. So I had to have like 50 of them, even though you only see like three of them.”
Marshall jokes that the show nearly killed her. "Like 90 percent of this show I did completely by myself. The first three episodes, there’s a good amount of food in every episode, and halfway through it sped up, and there was so much, I was working 20-hour days seven days a week a lot of time. I would have to be on set all day with the food — I didn’t just drop the food off, I had to be there to take care of it — and then I would go home and cook at night, and get up really early and cook all morning, then go back to set,” she says. “There came a point where I basically looked at my boss and said, 'I’m literally going to go into a hospital if I don’t have an assistant,’ and he just looked at me and was like, 'Well then, get an assistant.’ Mostly it was, like, get the ingredients, do the dishes, carry this stuff. I had really entered a portal and was living inside of it at this point — I don’t think I could have had anybody do it for me. I just needed man power.”
All food images courtesy Emily Marshall.
The Astronaut Wives Club airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on ABC.