Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Return To Sender

Dear Jackie —

I hope this letter finds you well and recovered from all the New Year’s parties! Our dear Mother just sent me the most dreary letter. You know how she is with the “advice.” She thinks she’s helping but you just end up feeling insulted. For instance, she’s resolved to get me cooking salads for our health, as if we’re starving here in the city. There are restaurants in New York, Mother. We’re not wasting away. She calls Robert my “great, tall new husband”! What — does she think that if I don’t feed him salad he’ll shrink?

She even wants to school me on vitamins as if I’ve never heard of them before. Doesn’t she know that vitamins always were in food and that they’re not something that magically appear just because you know they’re there? She’s such a provincial. I don’t know how Father puts up with her. Or you. Is she cramming salad down your throat too? What a nightmare.

Oh, and get this — she says all I ever cooked at home was fudge, and that I’m a complete amateur. Well of course I am — she wouldn’t let us cook anything else! And if she’s so concerned about my being able to keep us both alive, why didn’t she take the time to teach me before the wedding? Let me answer that — it’s because she’s a control freak! I’m so happy to be out of it at last.

Apart from all that we are doing splendidly. Robert is trying his very best to start a family (wink wink) and I am loving the shops. I’ve even taken up smoking! You must try it — it’s very glamorous. Perhaps they don’t allow it at your school?

Ugh — I’ve just noticed a recipe she’s sent me for that abysmal Oyster Salad she serves up in a lemon jelly ring. I’d rather slit my wrists. And so would Robert. We’d both be lying here in a vast pool of blood with an uneaten mold on the table. How would Mother like that?

Be a good girl and kiss all the boys for me,

Your loving Sister,
Maggie X

Salad Leaves, Harriet Meaker Osborne, Ivanhoe Foods, Inc., 1930

Also from this book: Appetite Special

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Ephemeral Gladys LeBlanc

Gladys LeBlanc always loved to write. As a girl she spent hours carving her name into the sand with a stick, often racing to complete it before the tide washed it away. In her years as a teacher at Underhill Elementary she gained quite a reputation for being able to squeeze an enormous amount of writing onto the blackboard before lack of space forced her to have to erase it from the top. Her hand was very difficult to read, and the students would complain, but she’d tell them to bite their tongues. During assembly, she could often be seen with a finger held to her mouth to get the children to hush, especially during the prayer, when chattering was frowned upon.

Gladys met her husband Everett at church, where she sang in the choir, every Sunday sending praises into the air to be heard only for a moment before being lost to silence and the sound of shuffling feet. Everett’s family had come from France and all spoken French, but none of them spoke it anymore, especially Everett, who wasn’t attracted to her voice because he was born deaf.

Gladys found this to be somewhat of a relief after her last venture into amore — an affair conducted entirely in the form of letters sent to an airbase where her beau — a pen pal named James — had been stationed. She had hoped this would lead to marriage once he was sent home — it had seemed that he was full of promises in that regard, but things aren’t always what they seem, and it turned out he was quite the wordsmith, playing the field with several ladies in her small town from afar. His empty words all went up in flames in the fireplace after Ethel revealed that she too had hoped one day to become his wife. Ethel was a gossip, so Gladys stopped confiding in her.

After her marriage Gladys worked part-time as a copy-editor for the local paper, armed with a red pencil with which to strike through lines of text that did not suit the paper’s style. Never use twenty words if you can say it in ten, her supervisor always said, forever on the lookout to save column space for ads. In her spare time, she liked to do the crossword, so avoided passing the desk of the setter so she wouldn’t accidentally get a glimpse of the answers in advance.

Life with Everett was quiet, and eventually she stopped humming while she worked on learning sign language, an art that mystified her but in which her new husband was fluent. After some years she found she could keep up with what he and his deaf friends were saying, but always felt like an outsider, sure that at least some of the signs they used were not suitable for a lady’s eyes. Once, while turning the mattress, she found a gentleman’s magazine hidden there, which she threw away and never mentioned.

Everett worked for the local authority as an odd-jobs man, and thanks to a spate of vandalism spent most of his time scrubbing graffiti off lavatory doors and walls. On Saturdays he kept the scoreboard for the local baseball team — not being able to play himself due to the deafness — constantly hanging and re-hanging scores and keeping track of outs and runs on a little notepad so he wouldn’t get lost. After the game, he’d tear the page off, roll it up into a ball, and pitch it into the bin.

Gladys and Everett were blessed with a son who grew up to be a typesetter for the paper, always coming over for Sunday dinner with ink-stained hands from cleaning used type. He took Gladys to his office once, to show her how it worked — the trays of metal letters and blocks for spacing, each one having to be arranged individually and disassembled after the print run. Gladys was left speechless at the thought of having to learn where all the letters were in so many small compartments. This was before the linotype machines arrived and the great cases of alphabets and glyphs were carted off to the dump, of no use to anyone anymore. Occasionally, a child would come home clutching a handful of Baskerville and a bit of Caslon that had washed up along the banks of the river, but their mothers would invariably throw them away again.

It wasn’t until Everett retired that Gladys started doing cakes. The bakery found it had more business than it could handle, it being an aging town and having so many funerals to cater. For some reason, the Bible verses caught on — they were cheaper than getting something printed for a wreath — and served to fill the bellies of the bereaved. Gladys relished the work — sometimes two or more cakes a week — squinting over them with food coloring and a toothpick, though it was always sad to be reminded of a voice she had once spoken many of these verses with at church meetings being snuffed out.

Often, Gladys was asked to attend the wake, and thus had to eat her own words, though she was always careful to save the slice that spelled out LOVE, taking that home to Everett, wrapped in a napkin printed with the funeral home’s name. 

Easy Cake Decorating Cookbook, Mildred Brand, 1980

Also from this book: Stop Clowning Around, Frosting The SnowmanThomas Kincade: Painter of Cakes

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Importance Of Being Ernest

Children can be so difficult. They’re always insisting on wearing stiff white collars and combing their hair. Ernest (we’d prefer to call him “Ernie,” but he simply insists) once tried to have a maid flogged because he found a stain that had not been properly eliminated on the back of his collar. We had to tell her to limp for a while to pretend we’d done it so he’d calm down. You should see the looks he gives if he catches anyone slumped at the dinner table. Back perfectly straight or else. He refuses to drink water out of anything less than a stemmed glass with a lemon wedge and can at times be overly critical with the arrangement of the centerpiece, especially if it contains elements out of season or not absolutely balanced. He’s a sensitive, artistic child.

His sister Rosamond (she prefers “Rosie”) is rather heroic sharing a bedroom with him. Oh, the paces he puts her through. She’s less picky but does have a taste for sweets — pies, doughnuts and things of that sort. We sometimes worry that she will become plump but honestly we feel she has to grin and bear it to such an extent with her brother that we indulge her. He won’t have any of that — preferring instead to cap his meal with a slice of aged cheddar and perhaps a perfectly ripe fig.

We used to have a great deal of trouble with Rosie’s nightmares — she’d wake up screaming in absolute terror for no discernable reason, clutching her doll and shaking. The doctor suggested it was indigestion caused by cook using butter in the pastry, so we switched to Crisco and now she sleeps peacefully all through the night like a lamb. Of course, as soon as he heard about his sister’s digestive failings, Ernest moved into the guest bedroom and has remained there ever since.

We hear strange sounds coming from behind his door. From the blueprints he carelessly left on his desk it seems he’s installing a greenhouse for his orchids.

Mrs. Neil’s Cooking Secrets, Marion Harris Neil, The Proctor & Gamble Co., 1924

Also from this book: Crisco Fever, Let Them Eat Cake

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Grantham Biscuits

The Dowager Countess: Oh! My Dear, what on earth are you serving now? Some kind of dreadful dental biscuit such as one would feed a dog?

Cora: No, Violet — Mrs. Patmore came up with them. She’s calling them Grantham Biscuits.

The Dowager Countess: Is this what we’ve come to? Allowing our cooks to invent things for us to eat?

Cora: I think they’re rather delicious. They’re made with ginger.

The Dowager Countess: It might be the sort of thing you Americans like, but not the English. We like our tea to look familiar, so we know what to reach for. A slice of shortbread. A petit-four. It’s how you avoid being poisoned, you know.

Cora: Don’t be so dramatic and give it a try. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

The Dowager Countess: Pleasantly surprised? Like that time I bit into the plum pudding and nearly cracked my tooth on a penny? It took until New Year to recover from the shock!

Cora: That’s just tradition — you were simply the lucky one that year. Getting the penny brings good luck.

The Dowager Countess: Hardly. It’s the sort of thing the working classes do for fun. Next thing you know common laborers will be eating “Grantham Biscuits” with their tea. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

G & C Cookery Book, The General Electric Co. Ltd.

Also from this book: Mockery

Friday, February 24, 2012

This’ll Help You Breathe Easier

Sometimes, the most offbeat cures of yesteryear were actually legit. Though how or why they worked might not have been understood, people simply knew that they did work.

Take this treatment for asthma from 1903 that uses pineapple. That probably sounds highly improbable, given that today, with pineapple far more readily available than it was a century ago, it’s not what you’ll reach for first to ease asthma. During an attack, you’re going to reach for the inhaler, filled with albuteral, which provides immediate relief. It was first marketed as Ventolin in 1968.

Pineapples are bromeliads. The pineapple extract bromelian was first isolated in 1891. But bromelian wasn’t promoted as a therapeutic supplement until 1957. Bromelian is an anti-inflammatory agent. Research at the University of Connecticut has shown that this enzyme really does help alleviate the symptoms of asthma.

Go figure.

The Kentucky Receipt Book, Mary Harris Frazer, 1903

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Sticky Situation

— Audrey, what on earth…

— What’s the matter, Hugh?

— This sauce — it’s — it’s got a funny texture.

— That’s how it’s supposed to be.

— Surely not, though, darling.

— I followed the recipe to the letter.

— What’s in it?

— A quarter pound of mozzarella and one and a quarter pounds of Elmers.

— Elmers?

— Yes. Elmers. You know, the school glue. The white stuff that dries transparent.

— Well, that explains it! But Audrey, glue? Really?

— It says it’s non-toxic on the bottle.

— That’s hardly the point.

— Are you sure that’s what the recipe said? I find it very hard to believe.

— I had Cindy read it out to me while I was cooking. I had so much to do.

— But Cindy’s only six. And she has a lisp. Perhaps you ought to go fetch the book so we can see.

* * * * * * * 

— Oh dear. I’m terribly afraid you’re right! It says “teleme,” not “Elmers.” I’ve never heard of teleme, have you?

— No.

— At least we caught it before the guests arrived. I say, Audrey?

— Yes, Hugh?

— If we leave these clams open won’t birds swoop down to grab them?

— I shouldn’t think so. Besides — they were open when I bought them. The man said it would save me a lot of hassle trying to do it later. They were dead cheap too! A real bargain.

Hors d’Oeuvres, Lane Publishing Co., 1976

Also from this book: Eggs, Cheesy Nuts

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Death Becomes You

Hello and welcome. You're the Ptomaine poisoning group I see. Very unpleasant. Sorry about that. Horrid way to go. I know you are tired from your exhausting ordeal, so let me be brief. Allow me to introduce the team who will be seeing you through the next few weeks. I know, they’re a rough-looking bunch, but they’re very gentle, really. That’s right, let’s give them a hand. Right then.

First you’ll be meeting the Mortis brothers. That’s Pallor Mortis — the pale one. Step forward, Pallor, so they can see you. Great.

Next, his twin Alor Mortis. You might find him a bit cold, but that’s just his personality. And no, no matter how much small talk you make, he won’t warm up.

You’ve probably heard of Rigor Mortis — he’s a right stiff! Again, don’t hope he’ll loosen up, so don’t even try. Right dourful he is. And inflexible.

Livor Mortis is a colorful chap, though tends to be a bit blue at times. It’s because he’s always settling for things — or in things. They all work pretty quickly, so you won’t get to know them all that well.

You’ll be spending far more time with the next lot.

Putrefaction looks like a thug but inside he’s a big mush. He’ll soften you up in no time. Bit smelly though, so hold your nose if you can. I mean while you can.

Once he’s done with you Decomposition will take over. His chit-chat will leave you in pieces! Seriously, you’ll fall apart listening to him go on and on.

The last guy you’ll meet is Skeletonization, which is a grand name for such a bag of bones! Where is he? I can’t see him. Oh, well, he must be knocking about somewhere.

So, Ladies and Gentlemen, that’s us. We can’t wait to get to know you better. We take great pride in our work, but it can’t be rushed. It’ll seem like an eternity, but it isn’t.

That comes after.

Rumsford Book on Household Management, Hannah Wing

Also from this book: That's Hysterical

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Alternate Tale Of Squirrel Nutkin

Beatrix Potter

Old Brown, the owl, was tired of Squirrel Nutkin’s impertinence. How nice it would be, he thought, to have broiled squirrel for supper! It just so happened that Old Brown had the perfect recipe in his library.

On the appointed day, Old Brown prepared for his feast. He set his fire and melted butter with which to anoint Squirrel Nutkin once he was cooked. Then he waited.

Soon enough, the squirrels came by, as they always did, led by the meddlesome Squirrel Nutkin singing one of his puzzling riddles. All of a sudden, Old Brown sprung into action, grabbing the object of his annoyance and quickly stuffing him into his waistcoat pocket. The other squirrels dashed away.

But Squirrel Nutkin could smell the melted butter and knew what was in store for him. Old Brown pinned him down to skin him as the recipe instructed, but his dinner struggled and pulled and put up an almighty fight. But Old Brown was too strong and after a while Squirrel Nutkin, who once had been so full of life, succumbed.

In a jiffy, Old Brown had skinned him and gutted him and laid him out on his fire to broil. He spooned the melted butter over him, seasoned his nemesis with salt and pepper, and squashed him between two hot dishes before serving him up.

Complete Cook Book, Marion Harland, 1906

Also by Marion Harland: Roast Bambi, StainedThe Wet Blanket of Discouragement

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Heart of Pineapple

This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it. He had become affianced to a woman — a dramatic, highly strung woman — who was in possession of the most tragic misunderstanding when it came to fish-and-flavor love affairs. On our long nights sitting in that horrible darkness he told me of a dish she proudly made and served — a pineapple sliced in two and filled with an assortment of shellfish and bacon. She had gone to great lengths to procure the tropical fruit and bid him “eat! eat!” as he sat in stunned silence at the table. She took his speechlessness for wonder, for affirmation that her intuition and instincts were right, that this dish married perfectly flavors only the most civilized of palates could have conjured up, just as she knew in her heart that Kurtz was the man for her, a Godly man, an honorable man, a man not given in the slightest to wretched sadism and degeneracy in the jungle.

As Kurtz recounted this tale, he clutched at his distended stomach with anguish as the night was broken by the cries of an unfortunate being gnawed upon by a crocodile down by the river.
            “Your Intended must love you very much,” I said, concerned only with escaping the conversation. But he was not done. He was in a confessional mood.
            “That was the reason I left Belgium,” he rasped. “The thought of a lifetime of dinners such as that — it’s more than any man could stand. You must see,” he implored, grabbing me by the collar, “the pineapple, it was cleaved in two, and in my mind’s eye — the grotesque pink and glossy flesh of what appeared to be larvae squirmed within.” He shuddered. The effort of recounting this memory seemed to have sapped his strength and sanity. He fell back, quietly sobbing.

When he died, I knew that it was this terrifying memory that besieged him, driving him over the cliff of despair, as we made our way downriver to return him once and for all into the arms of his abandoned Intended. He cried in a whisper at this image, at this vision of Pineapple-Seafood Salad — he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:
            “The horror! The horror!”

Fish & Seafood Cookbook, Brand Name Publishing Corp., 1985

Also from this book: Creamed Lobster, Hillbilly Sashimi

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Fried and Baked

The 1987 public service announcement from the Partnership For A Drug Free America, “This Is Your Brain On Drugs” has been ranked one of the top 100 ads of all time. It utilizes the slang commonly used to refer to hard drug use, being “fried.”

Though it lumps all drugs under one label (“drugs”), all drugs are not equal. Marijuana, for example, only leaves you “baked,” a far gentler cooking option which generally results in raising agents lifting a dough to make it high.

Nowadays we don’t have PSAs like this to warn people of the destructive effects narcotics have on your looks, your talents, your behavior and your career. The youth of America doesn’t need them. They have TMZ.

Cooking For Young Homemakers, Culinary Arts Institute, 1964

Also from this book: Roast Opossum, Fried BrainsCrown Roast of FrankfurtersRudolph the Red Nosed Pot Roast

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Feast For The Eyes

Robert Hughes says that “by general consent, Jean Siméon Chardin (pronounced “char-din”) was one of the supreme artists of the eighteenth century and probably the greatest master of still life in the history of painting,” but what does he know of art? Isn’t he Australian?

Real artists have their work displayed in art galleries and museums but Chardin’s daubings can still be found right where he painted them — the Louvre, a second-rate tourist attraction in Paris known mostly for displaying such things as sculptures of women missing their arms and tiny portraits of women sort of smiling. Not the pinnacle of man’s artistry, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Chardin’s paintings are supposed to be exquisite demonstrations of the Golden Rule in terms of their composition, creating a harmonious balance within a dynamic three-dimensional space. And yet all they are are bits of food on tables. Look at his “Still Life with a Rib of Beef,” for example. I know it was 1739, and they didn’t have refrigeration back then, but do we really need to be reminded of what a stench raw meat would have made just hanging there? I see some onions, but what else is the cook going to use to make something tasty? A few jugs and pots and a cloth — boring.

Far more interesting and useful is the work of the photographer / stylist (if indeed they are two separate people) who created the magnificent photographs that illustrate the book Quick and Simple Cooking for Two. See how the eye is led diagonally across the page — no horizontals or verticals here. There are plenty of oblique circles to keep the eye busy, and splashes of red indicate where the real action takes place, in the paired pans holding the prepared food. In between, we see evidence of what has gone into the meal: whole and chopped veggies, including a stalwart sheaf of celery.

Chardin can paint metals like copper and brass all he wants but can he paint stainless steel? Note the contrast between the polished bowl and grater, how they reflect the spotlight differently. Consider too the humanist touch of the tablecloth, recognizable from picnics to bistros like a security blanket. It says you are safe. This food will not kill you like raw beef. Critics, being unkind, might say that the rolled steaks look worryingly like turds, but that’s just how well-cooked meat looks.

The art lover can save themselves a lot of trouble and expense by eschewing the overrated glories of Paris and taking another look at what treasures lie in their bookshelves at home. Also, you won’t have to speak French.

Quick and Simple Cooking for Two, Ideals Publishing Corporation, 1976 

Also from this book: It Was All Yellow, Depth Of Field

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Crazy Bananas

If you live in the Anglosphere, you will no doubt be aware of the Tooth Fairy, who appears undetected in the night to collect a child’s lost tooth from underneath his or her pillow, replacing it with money. While a child’s propensity for belief in magical creatures is at its peak during those early years when milk teeth fall out, by the time said child is a veteran of the dental cycle, he or she is far more likely to simply go along with the pretense just to score a little cash.

The Tooth Fairy has been plying her trade for many hundreds of years with astounding reliability, though it behooves an inexperienced parent not to set the bar too high with the first tooth by being overly generous with the coin (and yes, the Tooth Fairy leaves actual metal coins, she is not so louche as to carry bills). Doing so will inevitably encourage uncomfortable and possibly harrowing conversations with your child regarding the health of the Tooth Fairy’s bank balance and where on earth she gets all her money should her contributions to your child’s piggy bank dwindle. (American children receive on average $2.60 per tooth, though not in loose change.)

Eventually the child will no doubt discover a trove of baby teeth in the parent’s bedside table once they become curious enough to start exploring those parts of the house deemed off-limits in order to find the alcohol, porn and sex toys their friends have convinced them must be there. It is debatable which is more psychologically damaging for the child: to find damning proof that their parents lied to them all those years about the Tooth Fairy’s existence or to uncover a hefty, lifelike silicone dildo in Mommy’s drawer. Such are the potential hazards of family life.

In Spanish-speaking places (the Spanglosphere? The Hispanosphere?), the Tooth Fairy comes in the form of a mouse, which in days of yore might have been a little closer to the truth. Elsewhere, teeth are thrown to the ground or up into the air in order to persuade the powers that be to make the child’s new teeth grow in straight. One might argue that the English ought to have adopted that tradition instead.

Here is a recipe to encourage the Tooth Fairy’s (or the Tooth Mouse’s) good work.

The Chinese-Kosher Cookbook, Ruth and Bob Grossman, 1963

Also from an expended version of this book: How Very Schmaltzy, Are We Done? The Case of the Missing Swine

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

All Blocked Up And No Place To Go

What does a yeast company do when women stop baking bread? They find another use for their product. Fleischmann’s, the company which first developed and patented cakes of yeast that produced rapidly-rising dough, found that shifting the goalposts could keep a company afloat. If you think that’s a mixed metaphor, you’re right. Mixing things around was all the rage in the 1930s, when numerous products we associate with one thing now were formerly associated with something completely different. Coca-Cola was a medicine before it was a drink; Listerine a surgical antiseptic before it killed bad breath. If a company couldn’t diversify its product, it had to diversify its application instead.

Fleischmann’s did this by creating and propagating a brand new ailment for which their product was — shocker! — the only antidote. “Intestinal Fatigue” sounds like it could be a real clinical problem, but isn’t. It caught on because it is something people felt they could diagnose themselves, and would be reluctant to go to the doctor about. Constipation tends to be a private matter. On the one hand they created a medical problem (sluggish, unclean intestinal tract), and on the other decried medicine (“If you want to get rid of Intestinal Fatigue in a natural way — harmlessly, without dosing yourself with medicines….”). Look how they made it sound important with capital letters and reassuring, by insisting it is “harmless,” yet make the condition sound dangerous by calling normal bowel contents “poison.” The addition of the alleged sanctification by “famous physicians” and the large photograph of a French doctor with a microscope all lend an air of authority that is in fact meaningless.

The headline, “Want to enjoy PERFECT HEALTH?” suggests that the reader is not already in perfect health. Since everyone gets “that tired feeling” merely by dint of being human, it is easy to point to a cause. Simple fatigue (probably caused by early rising and hard work) is given a new, specific locus of blame: the intestine, helpfully indicated on the odd map of the anatomy.

Ad from 1937

One wonders how humankind survived and flourished all these years without Fleischmann’s glorious elixir of health, their yeast. If anyone has actually used yeast to bake with, you will know that it does not smell appetizing. Imagine nibbling on two whole cakes of it every day! As it happens, normal bowel function can be maintained simply by eating fruit, which provides roughage and naturally occurring yeasts in its skin. Vitamin D and the bone-strengthening properties the yeast is supposed to provide can all be had with fresh milk and exercise in the open air.

Ad from 1932

Fleischmann’s caught a lucky break before the general public caught on to their scheme and stopped buying all that yeast — World War Two broke out, and they were able to provide a less-perishable dried yeast ideal for the army to use at the front.

Thus they switched again from focusing on women with fatigue — to men in fatigues.

Giving Your Meals The Touch Of Individuality, Standard Brands of California, 1937

From the Fleischmann's Yeast Hour, 1937

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Chocolate Tragedy

Verona, a public place.

JULIET: Happy Valentine’s Day! Thanks for all this chocolate!

ROMEO: I think I might have overdone it. Thanks for sneaking out to meet me.

JULIET: My Mom doesn’t want me to see you. She wants me to marry this guy named Paris instead.

ROMEO: That’s lame. If I ever met a dude named Paris, I’d kill him.

JULIET: That gives me an idea.

ROMEO: Oh yeah?

JULIET: If they try to make us walk down the aisle, I’ll commit suicide.

ROMEO: Isn’t that a bit drastic?

JULIET: Here’s the kicker: I’ll only PRETEND to be dead.

ROMEO: That won’t last long though. Have you thought this through?

JULIET: They’ll bury me and everything, but then I’ll wake up and run off and marry you instead.

ROMEO: That seems reasonable. But what if it doesn’t work? What if you really do die?

JULIET: It’s a risk I’ll have to take.

ROMEO: If you died, I’d have to kill myself. There would be no other possible outcome.

JULIET: Well if you died, I’d have to kill myself too. If it turned out I wasn’t dead already, that is.

ROMEO: If only our parents would let us date! There’d be far less bloodshed.

Chocolate Fantasies, Verne Ricketts, 1985

Also from this book: Chocolate Hot Tub, Chocolate Hanukah, Chocolate Nativity, MoonPie, Animal Crackers

Monday, February 13, 2012

Ham Sandwich Deluxe

If this ham sandwich were a piece of prose...

...one would not simply mention the sun rising at dawn (though that is of course redundant); one must also include the full splendor of the colors which paint the sky smiling upon the world’s stage minute-by-minute to the tune of a rooster’s crow and dust mites swirling in the air. We must also extend our imaginary eye to the bustling of milkmaids bringing in their heavy pails sloshing of rich milk to the dairy barn, and paper boys throwing the morning news onto people’s porches from their bicycles while a beagle chases him, barking. Someone’s clock radio clicks on, bringing into the room the soft strains of music as the fellow turns over in his pajamas to kiss his wife who lies in perfect repose still made up from the night before. Before long, the children — a boy and a girl — burst in, jumping on the bed saying “Daddy, Daddy, today we go to Disneyland!” while downstairs the coffee pot drips hot black Folgers into the carafe glinting in the now-risen sun. Someone in uniform cracks open the garden gate returning from WWII but only the cat jumps off the windowsill in recognition. It is both summer and winter at the same time, and in this perfect world the happy family will eat sandwiches for lunch — ham sandwiches, that look like this — only no-one will know exactly how they get it into their mouths, let alone swallow it all.

Meals in Minutes, Better Homes and Gardens, 1973

Also from this book: Planned Overs, Pacific Rim Job

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Frosting The Snowman

Originally, the studio wanted Veronica, Estelle and Nedra to sing “Chapel of Love” in elaborate wedding dresses for their first appearance on national television, but after rehearsals, the girls complained that their dresses appeared to be melting under the lights. In between takes, they started singing "Frosty the Snowman" as a joke, changing the word to "Frosting" and pretending to scoop up handfuls of chiffon from their voluminous skirts and smear them into their mouths. 

Instead, they opted for the hip black outfits they arrived in, paired with the wedding shoes. They sang “Be My Baby”and "Shout" in front of a live audience which nearly deafened them with screaming, as was all the rage in 1963. The backing dancers, who were set to perform in long skirts as schoolgirl bridesmaids, would clearly have looked out of place, so they ditched their skirts altogether. (False)

Phil Spector refused to allow the Ronettes to release “Chapel of Love,” paving the way for the Dixie Cups to have a hit with it instead. (True)

Easy Cake Decorating Cookbook, Mildred Brand, 1980

Also from this book: Stop Clowning Around, The Ephemeral Gladys LeBlancThomas Kincade: Painter of Cakes

Friday, February 10, 2012

Blackbird Pie

Cooks do not necessarily have the reputation as humorists. Rather, they are Generals in the kitchen, preparing meals as if engaging in battle. After all, it is no laughing matter if something goes wrong.

History is littered nevertheless with the jolly japes thought up by chefs (perhaps at their master’s behest) with which to entertain guests. These mostly involved the element of surprise — the more improbable and technically difficult to accomplish the better. Notable among these was the sudden flight of birds from a pie, a trick that conjures up black magic, the ability to defy death against all odds.

In 1744, this was celebrated in a folk song we still sing today, delighting children by pinching their noses at the end. Try actually serving a pie filled with live birds however, and you’re likely to run afoul (or afowl) of many things — chief among them your guests and good taste.

The traditional pie bird echoes this song. It is placed in a pie, poking its ceramic head up through the crust in order to let steam escape through the hole in its mouth.

Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye.
Baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened,
The birds began to sing;
Wasn't that a dainty dish,
To set before the king?
The king was in his counting house,
Counting out his money;
The queen was in the parlor,
Eating bread and honey.
The maid was in the garden,
Hanging out the clothes;
When down came a blackbird
And pecked off her nose.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

What a Douchebag

Let’s not pretend what “french fries” stand for here.

If you want your husband’s french fry to stand upright, be sure your basket isn’t too “greasy.” Be sure your chicken is up to snuff too. He’ll find it tasty. Maybe you’ll also find it tasty should you have the opportunity to find out. I’m sure your husband will want to watch. Perhaps he has something “all-vegetable” in mind. Look: in that last photo he’s showing you exactly what he has in mind for dessert!

Somewhere, the person who designed this ad is still doubled over with a hand clamped tight over their mouth in disbelief they actually ran it.

Crisco not only has no cholesterol — it has no shame.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Are You Getting Your Three Square?

Just because we humans can eat most things doesn’t mean we humans should eat most things — at least, not all the time. In the days of yore a balanced diet could be fairly assured with any national cuisine (traditional foods having earned their regular place at the table because those who ate them thrived), but once people moved away from home and had to cook for themselves, often using unfamiliar ingredients, things began to go awry. (Think what happens to a teenager suddenly released from the tyranny of the family dinner who lives on nothing but beer and pizza his or her first year of college.) Once the science behind why certain foods were beneficial, and in what proportion they were best consumed was uncovered, it behooved governments to educate their citizens on basic nutrition in order to ensure a healthy populace.

In 1941 saw the publication of America’s first nutrition guides, which determined the following daily allowances:

one pint of milk for adults
one quart of milk for children
one generous serving of meat, fish, or poultry daily with a serving of liver once a week
two eggs or
one egg and an extra serving of meat or
one egg and at least one ounce of cheese
two servings of vegetables, one should be leafy
one serving of white or sweet potatoes, eating the skin too
two servings of fruit, one should be citrus
dark whole grain in bread and breakfast cereal
at least three servings of butter on bread and vegetables
six to eight glasses of water

Note that the guide is written in the form of a list, with proteins, fats and carbohydrates in order. All are whole foods. It is a general list, allowing for a great deal of flexibility to account for traditional foods. Note what isn’t on there, too: no sweets or refined sugars of any kind.

By 1943, in the midst of war, this advice was made into a colorful pie chart which grouped foods and presented them equally, each slice the same size, much as one would have divided a real pie. In the middle we have a sturdy looking family walking towards us with the rejoinder that the “US needs us strong.”

 In 1946, after the war (when presumably the need to eat from the “basic seven” groups wasn’t “for health” or because needing to be strong was no longer necessary), the same chart reappeared in black and white, far harder to read, and seemed to promote the dairy quotient, whose slices popped out from the rest. Americans were scolded not to waste food with a bold note in the corner.

By 1992 the US Department of Agriculture decided that the pie chart’s misleading visual recommendation that each food group was of equal value, and that one could select from it like a buffet bar needed updating, and so presented us with the food pyramid, which was designed to show not only which foods we should be eating, but how much of them. It is a solid pyramid, like those at Giza. At its base are loaves of bread. In the middle, a bunch of fruits and vegetables. Nearer the top are the animal products, meat, fish, eggs, dairy. And on top, like a crowning prize (and what we see on a dollar bill), a smaller pyramid with white sprinkles representing goodies. Clearly this new diagram meant to foreground carbohydrates as the foundation for eating, a point of view that echoed the era's thinking on the dangers of fat. But this is not how most Americans actually eat. In fact, we eat the reverse, with those white sprinkles littered throughout.

 In 2005, geniuses at the USDA realized that this had to be changed, but inexplicably stuck to the whole pyramid idea as the best means to accurately express the nutrition guide. Their graphic must rank as one of the worst-designed public health visuals ever made. In keeping with the notion that in America it’s every man for himself (“Army of One”!) the title reads “MyPyramid,” a neologism that breaks all known rules of grammar. Sure enough, a transparent pointy person is seen running up the stairs at the side, presumably to slide down once he/she/it reaches the top. The food already has, and it sits littered in a great heap at the bottom. Because it is all-inclusive, the rainbow color scheme has been employed in a twisted version of a prism. Foods are hard to identify and often shown in their packaging. The stick person’s head is literally in the clouds. Even if one ignores the travesty of the graphics, the concept simply doesn’t hold up: all it tells me is that I should eat about as much orange as blue and green, with a bit less red, a bit of purple and hardly any yellow. I might as well eat a bag of Skittles and taste the rainbow.

Fortunately, this has not lasted long. In 2011 the USDA reverted to the plate as its central theme — literally. It’s done away with pictures of food altogether in favor of Trivial Pursuit-like wedges and a glass of milk. It assumes we know what foods constitute proteins (are they separate from grains, though?) and obviously seeks to show how much of our own plates these foods should occupy. The trouble is that not many people actually eat off plates any more. The people for whom this graphic is designed eat out of wrappers and packets and through straws. Though a plastic fork has been provided, people mostly use their fingers. There is no space for sweets, so how much should one eat of those? And where is the soda? Does the dairy in a circle represent a milkshake? By casting the food groups as spatial territories, the USDA is essentially drawing a map to guide our nutrition choices, but not one grounded in any easily applied logic. How does one judge the correct proportion of dairy (a circle) to fruits (a triangle)? How much dairy is an apple equal to, exactly?

Perhaps it’s time we reverted back to the original advice we were given in 1941, where everything was quite actually spelled out. Liver. Once a week. For all. 

America’s Nutrition Primer: What To Eat And Why, Eleanora Sense, 1941

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Gold Medal Memories

The worst part about my childhood wasn’t so much the obsession my mother had with my hair — parted one way one day, another way the next — but her slavish dedication to following the recipes found on packets. For some reason she saw recipes printed for free on a wrapper as being more authentic, more of a bargain than recipes from a cookbook. Everything came with a recipe back then, to give housewives ideas, and they were always things that could be made with minimum fuss and bother, and quickly too.

She went through this period of making cakes from recipes found on flour bags. There was this One-Mix cake that required everything to be whipped up in one bowl — it had raisins in it, and this thick gooey frosting. She made one every week. It was dire. She’d cut huge wedges of it with a garden trowel. That thing was dense, and ever now and then you’d bite into a raisin, which isn’t something you want to find in a cake. My brother would pick all of his out, and end up with a pile of crumbs, in the hopes he’d be excused from eating it. I wasn’t so crafty. I ate as much as I could, and always ended up with constipation.

Oh look! You have a photo. I can remember clear as day what I was thinking when that was taken. I won’t be able to move my bowels for a week. You can see from my expression how enthused I was.

Eventually Mother remarried. Patrick’s anorexia was hard on her. It’s rare in boys. I think she’s living out on Long Island now.

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