Marcy Carriker Smothers’ latest book, “Eat Like Walt: The Wonderful World of Disney Food,” is a hefty, large-format tome that can be a little hard to digest in one visit, kind of like the iconic theme park in its name. But thanks to a generous helping of insider-type historic photographs and drawings, colorful graphics and a passionate narrative, it sweeps the reader along for the ride. And it’s a good one.
The Sonoma County food and wine expert, radio personality and “communitarian” do-gooder grew up going to Disneyland on a regular basis with her family and has always been fascinated by the magic created by the iconic theme park.
“For me, it was the best and happiest place on Earth,” Smothers said in an interview at her Santa Rosa home. “Everything tastes better at Disneyland ... when I enter the gates and see the giant flower Mickey, I feel like I’m home.”
An avid researcher and food enthusiast, Smothers knew a few years ago that she wanted to write a book about Disneyland’s incredible edibles during its halcyon years, from the park’s opening in 1955 to Walt Disney’s death in 1966.
“My concept was that Walt intended the food and eating experience at Disneyland to be as immersive and entertaining as the attractions,” she said. “I also wanted the book to be Walt-centric. This was my slice of the pie ... there are 10,000 books written about Walt, but this is the first one written through the lens of food.”
After starting her research, however, she decided to expand the time frame to incorporate a chapter on Walt’s own personal eating habits at home — one photo shows him next to the fridge with a hot dog in hand and his own dog watching — as well as a chapter about his pioneering studio restaurants, which date back to 1921.
“By 1940, he had four state-of-the-art restaurants for employees,” she said. “The Monte Cristo sandwich (made famous at Disneyland’s beloved Blue Bayou restaurant) was on the studio menu back then — it’s a California sandwich.”
In the heart of the book, Smothers whisks the reader off on a culinary tour of the park’s six lands, capping off the tasty adventure with two bonus chapters at the end on Walt’s favorite restaurants outside of Disneyland and a retro array of recipes from his home, studio and Main Street, U.S.A.. including the famous Pineapple Polynesian Ribs served at Adventureland’s Tahitian Terrace.
“All the recipes are authentic to Walt’s era, and now everyone can eat like Walt,” she said. “Pick your favorite Disney music and listen to it while you cook like Walt.”
With the help of archival photographs and menus, Smothers turned back the clock to when Disney himself walked the streets of Disneyland, picking up litter and striding from Walt’s Enchanted Tiki Room and the Golden Horseshoe in Frontierland to his two apartments located over the fire station and over the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction.
“Disneyland is the only park in the world where Walt stepped foot,” she said. “The two restaurants he championed — Blue Bayou and Club 33 — both opened after he died, and Blue Bayou is considered the first theme restaurant in all of history.”
The book, which was published by Disney Editions and released just this week, took the author 18 months to research and write. She spent an additional six month putting together her book proposal.
Proving it’s a small world after all, Smothers received a bit of guidance from her friend and former neighbor John Lasseter of Glen Ellen, who serves as the Chief Creative Officer for Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios and Principal Creative Advisor for Walt Disney Imagineering. Deliberately, she did not tell Lasseter that she was writing the book, but the news eventually leaked out over a lunch with Lasseter and a few Disney executives.
After reading her proposal twice, Lasseter gave her some feedback and, because he liked the concept, she said, he took the proposal to the head of Disney Publishing.
In the book’s foreword, Lasseter wrote: “It’s a fascinating story, connecting the personal, professional and public sides of Walt Disney’s life: from his simple tastes and down-to-earth home life, to his attention to detail and good quality in everything he touched, to his incredible understanding of storytelling and entertainment as a complete experience.”
The final decision to publish the book was made by Wendy Lefkon, vice president of editorial for Disney Publishing Worldwide in New York. Once Lefkon gave her the go-ahead, Smothers dug into her research with relish.
Smothers wrote the book while listening to Disney music from the Disney Children’s Radio, either sitting in her home office, at Acre Coffee in Montgomery Village, Franchetti’s Wood Fire Kitchen in Santa Rosa or at Disneyland itself, where she spent more than 80 days.
The book was laid out and designed by Iaian Morris of Cameron & Co. in Petaluma, who created a fun, retro look to conjure up the mid-century, modern era.
“This is an outstanding book, full of never-seen-before illustrations and photographs, and impeccably researched by ... an author who clearly cares deeply about her subject matter,” wrote well-known Disney historian Didier Ghez in an early review of the book.
Finding fresh stories, recipes and photographs became a treasure hunt for Smothers, whose appetite for more was whetted each time she unearthed a new nugget.
“Ninety percent of the images have never been seen before,” she said. “The cover photo has not been allowed to be used for 40 years. It was taken in August 1966 and is believed to be the last photo of Walt.”
Although she had never met Disney, Smothers interviewed people who had all known him personally, including long-time employees like Oscar, the chef at the Carnation Cafe; Disney executives and fans; and the Disney family members who founded Silverado Vineyards in Napa.
“I knew Diane Disney Miller casually (Disney’s daughter), but she had passed away by the time I was writing the book,” she said. “But her husband, Ron Miller, and their two kids, Tam and Jenny, were a tremendous help.”
Other key sources and mentors for the author include Tom Fitzgerald, Portfolio Creative Executive for Walt Disney Imagineering, who wrote the book’s afterword; Kathy Mangum, vice president and executive producer with Walt Disney Imagineering; Tony Baxter, who created Star Tours, Indiana Jones and Splash Mountain; and Jim Cora, who retired as the chairman of Disney International and became her top “unpaid intern.”
Smothers met many other Imagineers while presenting a panel earlier this year about her “Eat Like Walt” book at the D23 Expo 2017, the official Disney Fan Club convention.
“What is overwhelming to me is that the Imagineers in Glendale and Orlando have asked me to speak to them,” she said.
It was Cora who offered the author the ultimate compliment: “You write like you knew Walt.”
“It was my privilege and my duty to present him as a human being,” she said. “Walt passed away in 1966, but 50 years after he died, you can still say Walt, and everyone knows who he is.”
Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @dianepete56.