Charles Phoenix on fried cereal, the genesis of the Cherpumple and molded gelatin

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If you know retro -- and particularly mid-century -- you know retro geek Charles Phoenix, a child of the endless car lots and fast food restaurants of Southern California who is famous across the nation for his mid-mod slide shows and modernist expertise. And you might even know about his sideshow, the most awesome Charles Phoenix Test Kitchen. In that guise, he's appeared on Martha Stewart's show and amazed Conan O'Brien with his spectacular Astro-Weenie Christmas Tree, but at the end of July, he'll be doing it 24/7 in the Denver County Fair Kitchen Pavilion, where he'll create such delectables of his own invention as Mr. Meatloaf and Fried Cereal, as well as judge such fair food categories as best Molded Gelatin Dessert and best Cake and Egg Decorating.

We chatted with Mr. Phoenix about the recipes and inspirations behind his unique retro food fetishes, and here's what he had to say.

Westword: How do you come up with your recipes?

Charles Phoenix: I grew up in southern California. I learned everything I needed to know there, and I like to experiment with reinventing recipes in kitchen. It's definitely a side thing, and I've really been loving it.

WW: You'll be demonstrating how to make Fried Cereal at the fair. What is that?

CP: It's not really fried. Actually, it's sauteed in butter until it gets toasted. To make it, you choose five of your favorite childhood cereals, put it all in an electric skillet and saute it until it's golden and crispy. If you think you loved it before, you'll really love it now. It's the new Chex Mix! Everyone can make their own personal blend. I recommend using at least one multicolored cereal, such as Froot Loops, for color. Then, you need something chocolate, because we all love chocolate. From there, you can use almost anything: Lucky Charms, Applejacks, Frosted Flakes. There are no bad combos, but the signature visual of dish is to have some kind of multicolored cereal as a base. Fried Cereal is the latest video on my website.

WW:What else will you be making?

CP: Well, I'll be making a Mr. Meatloaf. He'll have a vegetable face applied with toothpicks. My way of making meatloaf is different from everyone else's: I'll be mixing mine with animal crackers all crumbled up and barbecue chips mashed into little pieces. It gives it a sweet tang. And when I mix it together, I put it all in a big tea towel in a ball and bang the whole thing on the counter. It makes all the air go out of it. I like a solid meat loaf, not a crumbly one.

I might actually make a Mrs. Meatloaf, too, and I'll complement them both with tater tots. Americans were all brought up on junk food, and all I can say is thank you, Ore Ida, for making tater tots since 1954. I'm into the history of these products, and I try to give the ABC 123 on where they come from. When I make recipes where a brand name product is involved, I'll give some background on it, because the people want to know. WW: And then of course, you'll be doing your famous "Cherpumple." What about that?

CP: It's a pie baked inside of a cake, like a blend of all the desserts my family have at the holidays. One year, I noticed this big stack of paper plates in the trash, because everyone wanted to try a little bit of everything and they'd eat a different sliver on a new plate. We always have cake, and we have pies, so I though why not put all of it in one dessert? Think of it as my attempt to be green.

I'll be making a four-layer version this time: The first layer will be a cherry pie in white cake, then apple pie in spice cake, pumpkin in yellow cake and I think I'll do pecan pie in carrot cake, if I can find a good frozen pecan pie. It'll all be iced very generously with cream cheese frosting, and then you slice through the whole thing.

WW: What are some of your other recipes?

CP: Well, Mr. Meatloaf is actually an offshoot of my Tiki Turkey Meatloaf. I suggest serving it instead of a Thanksgiving turkey, and then you can Polynesianize all the other dishes.

And there's my Inchezonya: a combination of enchiladas and lasagna. It's the ultimate potluck party dish!

WW: Is there a dish you think has been under-recognized?

CP: I'm disappointed that we have collectively as a society turned our back on Jell-O. In my family, there used to be Jell-O at every family dinner. Now, it's totally gone. I'd like to invent something with Jell-O so delicious that everyone's gonna die! Maybe I could mix cake with Jell-O: cajelko? The Denver County Fair will have a gelatin mold contest, and I'll be judging it.

WW: Are you looking forward to guesting at the Denver County Fair?

CP Yes! I think they are Americana heroes, and I'm excited to be part of first Denver County Fair. It's not going to be our typical mom-and-dad county fair. Other fairs across the country are going to want to know what they re doing. If the county fair is to survive, every other one is going to have to shake it up like this one. The whole idea of the county fair needs to be defried.

See Charles Phoenix's demos at 6 p.m. July 29, 5 p.m. July 30 and 2 p.m. July 31, or visit the Test Kitchen booth in the Kitchen Pavilion at the Denver County Fair.

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