Might have been something I ate

By Hyacinth Miles

I’m so sick of all these cook books, with their glossy photographs and their unrealistic expectations. Cookbooks are clearly written for people who have a lot more time than I do, people who have time to heat up last night’s pizza, rather than eating it cold out of the box. People like that, use words like sauté, separated, poached, basted, marinated, and seasoned.

Who are these people, who pick up an Italian cookbook at Williams-Sonoma to use it for, say, a dinner party, and not, say, a doorstop. Do I want to meet them? No I do not. I have enough inferiority complexes all on my own. Thank you.

Luckily James Lileks has my back. A fan of vintage advertising, Lileks has assembled an impressive collection of the worst recipes in the Western hemisphere, recipes like veal Jell-O, celery aspic, liver sausage balls, and, my favorite, stuffed peppers with marshmallow sauce.

I should say that these are not genuine recipes that anyone actually ate. Rather they appeared in small pamphlets printed by the manufacturer of canned salmon, or quail eggs, or butter, and relying heavily on those products, generally in unexpected and distressing ways. This is how the book comes to include recipes for a ketchup omelet, ketchup deviled onion, ketchup profiteroles, and just to round out the day, ketchup chocolate cake (with green frosting). Given a willing audience of consumers the marketers could interject any processed food into every course of an American meal. It’s hard to imagine how difficult it must have been to distinguish real, reliable recipes from false, commercialized propaganda. Thank god we don’t have problems like that anymore.

Through comprehensive research Lileks has actually managed to compile a recipe book suitable for the sort of dinner party I would like to host; the sort of dinner party in which every one would stay away for fear of lard poisoning and I would be able to drink all the wine myself and hardly have to wash any dishes. When you really think about it, it is a brilliant scheme. More chocolate ketchup cake anyone?

What this book does best is drive home the extent to which people can abuse Jell-O in a time of need. Celery Jell-O, cucumber Jell-O, cherry and radish Jell-O, and of course, beef Jell-O all make an appearance, in livid putrid colors designed to keep the casual observer from ever wanting to eat again.

My favorite section of the book has to be the part published in World War II and entitled “Victory Meat Extenders,” which basically informs housewives how they can take the less desirable parts of the cow and make them last as long as possible. Dishes like Kidney Loaf, Braised Heart with Stuffing and Liver Spoon cakes are featured. This pamphlet was published by the National Livestock and Meat Board (known in modern parlance as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association) and included a touching little poem:

“The Pledge of the American Homemaker”

“I pledge the nation that my mission

Will be to practice good nutrition;

I want to do my bit and more,

To help America win the war.”

It’s hard to imagine that during World War II there were commercial enterprises cynical enough to superficially pander to patriotic sentiment while enriching themselves off of the deaths of their countrymen. Luckily we know better than to fall for such a stupid ploy to day.

I’d like to leave you with my favorite recipe in the entire book, Virgin Islands, developed by Chef Kurtz of the Bellevue-Stratford, Virgin Islands:

Take one scoop vanilla ice cream.

Top with marshmallows. n