The Gallery of Regrettable Food

The Gallery of Regrettable Food

by James Lileks

Random House

It’s not just that food is hard to photograph. And it’s not that food was that different 50 years ago than it is today. And it’s not values shifting or the Internet or the discovery of radicchio by Italian scientists in the late ’60s changes anything. It’s just that some damn disgusting looking dishes were served up over the years by food companies, and we may well have actually eaten some of them. Check you memory and see if this book brings back the subtle belch of Salmon Salad Tart or Wieners in Cherry Jell-O. Ah, I can smell it in your thought waves!

This book is a frightening documentary of the stuff I grew up with, the food my grandmother sort of cooked and the stuff that Garrison Keillor parodies in Lutheran Church Basement stories. Frightening, but funny. Will it change your gustatory habits? Oh sure, you might want to skip the mekrob at the corner Thai joint and tuck into Tongue Rolls Florentine tonight, or bypass a quick Chorizo Burrito in favor of Creamed Brains on Toast for lunch tomorrow. But don’t count on it.

Heck, food is so cultural that we often forget Head Cheese (and many other gelatin based preserved meat-like products) is still consumed with gusto in certain remote parts of north central Braunschwieg. And it’s not like the egg and olive penguin family isn’t cute, but you don’t have to actually put them in your mouth. Regrettable Foods performs a completely non-comprehensive survey of the menu suggestion made to our mothers and our mother’s mothers. It’s the fuzzy gray stuff in the Tupperware of American cooking, food best accepted in a world more simple.

This isn’t a cookbook in the sense that you’d leaf though it looking for ideas for next week’s bridge club. Actually, there are precious few detailed recipes at all. It’s just a jaundiced look at recipes that are themselves a bit jaundiced looking viewed with Lileks’ North Dakota expatriate eye. There are books from the 7-Up company (think – FLUFFY pancakes), Jell-O molds Roger Corman wouldn’t consider as alien villains, and a sobering view of how Toast got a lot of people though the great depression with a bit of self respect intact. It could be taken as supporting evidence in an Aristotelian argument for radical vegetarianism, except some of the vegetable receipted (Harlequin Spinach, Beet Pie Casserole) would make vegans consider a permanent IV drip for nutrition.

It’s food, its funny and it’s a retro looking book that can grace the coffee table of anyone who actually believes Happy Days is real. Just don’t show it to a pregnant woman — not if you want to stay related.

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