Monday, January 16, 2006

Zippily Zesty

One of the lesser-known entertainments in the realm of "so bad it's good" are old cookbooks from the 60's and 70's, with their ghastly recipes and horrific food photography. So far as I can tell, people in those days subsisted on nothing but meatloaf, casseroles, and various mutant forms of Jello. Every man, woman, and child seems to have consumed roughly 4 lbs. of unseasoned, greasy ground beef per day, pure and untainted by subversive foreign matter like, oh, garlic, or chiles, or anything else that would give it flavor. They all ate like proper Calvinists, it seems. Oh, you would get the occasional patronizing "international" recipe: You could dump a can of pineapple on top of your meatloaf and call it Polynesian, or pile on some chow mein noodles and water chestnuts (optional) and call it "Oriental", or glop it with sour cream and call it Swedish. But be warned: If you read too many of these at one sitting, you'll get "It's a Small World After All" [*Not* a Disney link] stuck in your head, and it just won't go away. The only way to make the song leave your head is to hum it out loud in the presence of others, thereby passing the infection on to them, a la The Ring. But I digress.

Right now, at this very moment, I have before me Volume 3 of the 16 volume Family Circle Illustrated Library of Cooking, from 1972. One of the concoctions this immortal tome offers us is the ambrosia known as "Parisian Meat Loaf Stacks":


2 lbs. meatloaf mixture ( ground beef, pork, and veal)
1 can (10.5 oz.) condensed onion soup
2 tbsp. flour
1/2 cup water
1 loaf French bread, cut diagonally into 8 thick slices and toasted
grated Parmesan cheese

Instructions (paraphrased):

1. Squish the meat into a 6 inch round, put it in a frying pan, pour
the soup over it. Heat it to a boil and cover it.
2. Simmer, repeatedly spooning the pan juices over your meat-wad
so it doesn't dry out. Do this for 90 minutes.
3. Lift the meat out, and make a gravy out of the remaining juices.
4. Put slices of bread on plates, with meatloaf slices on top, and gravy
over the whole schmeer.
5. Sprinkle each "generously" with Parmesan cheese, because they're
really going to need it.

I cannot stress enough how crucial it is to remember the French bread, because it's what makes this meatloaf dish so authentically Parisian, or not. Forget the bread, and you've just got meatloaf with gravy & Parmesan, a.k.a. "meatloaf Italiano", an entirely different recipe. Sadly, I have no photos of either to share with you today.

The really sad and funny part is the giddy tone the books take when describing these drab dishes and their ingredients. The Family Circle books were really bad about this. Most sentences include at least one breathless adverb; "zippily" and "snappily" are two of their very favorites. And even without adverbs, the writing is pretty dire. To wit:

What's to do with ground meat? Meat loaves, to be sure. And burgers with dozens of flavor variations. And meat balls swimming in savory sauce or gravy. And flavorful casseroles with a foreign accent. And quick skillet dinners. And meat pies. And... the list is long and alluring as the following collection of recipes proves.

The key point to the cuisine of this era is that there were only something like 15 ingredients total, and a limited number of ways of preparing them. Writing a cookbook was not an excursion into the realm of the senses, but rather a cold exercise in advanced combinatorics. You certainly can't argue that hard-boiled eggs tasted any better after having been run through with toothpicks and dressed up as penguins. That's not cuisine. Nor is it art. It's not even a useful handicraft. It's just unnatural and wrong.

And it's very sad as well; a whole generation of women poured their hearts and considerable creative energies into these eggy little penguins and the like, without anyone else even noticing. It was all a nasty trick played on them by the (probably 100% male) cookbook mafia, just more busywork women were supposed to derive their whole identities from. Women were told this was the one and only road to true happiness, right up there with vacuuming in pearls, and it was all a big scam.

Fortunately (for you, the reader), the universe of evil cookbooks has already been explored by writers and web designers far more talented than I. I present to you James Lileks' insanely great Gallery of Regrettable Food, which is also available in dead tree format. Not only have people already written better books on the topic than I have, but other people have written better blog entries about said books than I'm currently doing. Have I mentioned yet that I'm very, very late to the blog party? Have I explained yet that everyone else has a huge head start on me? What, now you want to see original ideas? In 2006? In this day and age, I think it's fair to say that for every good idea, there's a so-so movie that tries and fails to explain it, and you can find said movie on Netflix. Please don't ask me to keep up with those geniuses in Hollywood. I only just got an iPod in December, and just figured out the whole podcast thing on Friday, and I still don't have a cellphone. So gimme a break already, ok? Sheesh....

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