The Gallery of Regrettable Food by James Lileks. Crown Publishers, 2001. 0609607820.
Sarah: Part of the significance of this book, because there are plenty of people out there who make fun of the horrible illustrations in old cookbooks, is that James Lileks was one of the first. He was really early on the Internet scene, he has this wonderful website that he’s been working on since the nineties — it’s a great collection of weird old stuff. He’s also funny; he’ll comment on the pictures and not just say “oh, how disgusting!” He’s really amusing, and he’ll start bizarre mini-fictions that continue within and across his captions.
G: (looks at photo and laughs)
S: He talks about how his mom in, I think, 1962 was given a terrible promo cookbook from the North Dakota durum wheat growers… that was the start of his collection, when he found it in his mom’s closet, untouched, in the 90s.
He has a fictional recipe in there based on all the recipes in these books, where you carefully put one atom of chili powder in a dish with a pound of hamburger meat, 36 pounds of flavorless cheese… “if substituting spackle, crumble one yellow crayon for color,” one cup dusty crumbs from the toaster, three grains pepper, one pound salt, then that one atom of chili powder.
G: (laughing and paging through the book)
S: (laughing) “Eleanor Roosevelt’s favorite hot-dog recipe!” Rereading this years after I first saw it, I realize I own a bunch of the original books where he found these pictures! I can look up these recipes if I want to.
G: Pictures that accompanied recipes on old cookbooks… what the fuck is that?!?!
S: It’s from a book of glamorous snacks…
G: It’s an awful black and white photo!
S: It’s from this terrible publisher, one of the few I would never buy books from for my collection because they’re so horrible. It’s from the Culinary Arts Institute and they have terrible printing, terrible paper, and only black and white photos. Lileks entitles the chapter “What’s Black and White and Dead All Over?” The dishes look even worse than they probably were.
G: “Celery balls?”
S: He says in response to the cookbook’s claim that “frankfurters take on a new glamour in this gleaming aspic,” “Cold swollen hot dogs and cucumber slices do not equal ‘snacks’ and they surely don’t spell ‘glamour.’ In fact, frankfurters are generally agreed to be incapable of assuming glamour unless they are nestled in the cleavage of Grace Kelly. Even then it’s arguable.”
S: “Perhaps in the ’50s, this was how you broached the subject of a threesome with your dinner guests.” (laughing) It’s a photo of two long, homemade crackers put through a third cracker…
G: …that’s a ring.
S: I sort of forgot how dirty this book is!
G: It’s like the Vincent Price cookbook in here: aspic entrees, tongue mousse, jellied calves liver. Wait, cooking with 7-Up???
S: Yeah, there’s a recipe that involves pancake mix and 7-Up. I like his paragraph here: “On the other hand, maybe this is a still from some Jack Webb-produced anti-marijuana film. Imagine his clipped narration: ‘Betty had been to a marijuana party a week before. Reefer, mary jane, tea, weed, skeezix, grass, wombat smegma, pot — the kids have all kinds of names for it, but it all comes down to the same thing, Mister: it’s dope, it’s illegal, and it interferes with a woman’s natural sense of breakfast.'” Here’s the final product — it looks like crepes.
G: Oh, no! Oh my God! “Baste your roasts in 7-Up.” This so horrifying. (turns pages) What is that?
S: His theory is that this guy is holding a charcoal briquette next to a roasting chicken to indicate that you should stop cooking before it looks like this. He’s got whole story based on the people who are blurry in the background of these barbecue and picnic photos.
G: “Glop in a Pot!”
S: This is from The Good Housekeeping Casserole Book. He captions this photo “Beet Pie Casserole” but I thought that it didn’t look like beets to me, it looked like tomato sauce. And I have that book, so I looked it up. “Beets” is what the caption says, all right, recipe on page whatever. Then in the actual recipe, it’s a beef pie casserole, there was just a misprint.
This chapter is from a celebrity cookbook, but all the celebrities are really obscure, like a Spanish concert pianist.
G: Oh my God! “Dreck from Foreign Shores”
S: Lileks picks really good pictures, his descriptions are hilarious, and he builds on his jokes.
G: Why’d you mark this page?
S: For his perfect phrasing here: “straight-part hair, corn-fed Brut-soaked beefy golf dolts.” Beefy golf dolts! He really has an ear for the sound of it. I marked this other chapter, about the Spry cookbooks…
G: What’s Spry?
S: It’s like Crisco, but a different brand of solid hydrogenated vegetable oil that was discontinued. They had this character, Aunt Jenny, who was a grandmotherly figure who would give tips to women who had a hard time cooking. And most of them are told in comic strip format! Photo comics and drawn comics.
G: So these are real? No!
S: Yeah, these are the real ads. I’ve seen them! Lileks writes this crazy story about Aunt Jenny and her husband Calvin, their journey through jealousy and death.
It’s not hard to make fun of these bad photos, because they’re disgusting, but he brings it to a whole new level. He’s got other books, including one about 70s interior decoration called Interior Desecrations. It’s also hilarious.