Monday, April 16, 2012

Ham Cabbage Mold

Before the 1890s, the world was entirely black and white and shades of grey. If you wanted to know what something looked like, you had to use your imagination. People had very vivid imaginations, so that was OK. Well, sometimes it wasn’t. Sometimes people got it all wrong and lots of folks got killed as a result.

People had no idea what an orange was. They’d ask their grocer for a dimpled fruit yay-big and were handed a melon instead. Or a lemon. That depended on the literacy of one’s grocer, which in the 1890s was iffy at best. The banana was widely thought to be an urban legend until Carmen Miranda rendered all urban legends obsolete. But I digress.

The first color photograph was of a tartan ribbon. The ribbon thought it was posing for a normal black and white portrait and refused to pay. In 1855 a Scottish person named James Clerk Maxwell invented the eyeball by reducing the known universe to red, green and blue. When he mixed them together, he could make every hue there is, but when regular people mix them together all they get is brown. It is not known whether his genius was prompted into being by being hit on the head with an apple or an orange.

People think there are no words that rhyme with orange, but try rhyming anything with apple. People named Hugh are colorblind, a twist of fate they can’t even appreciate. I made that up. There are no people named Hugh.

One hundred years after Maxwell figured the eyeball out, Americans learned to mix anything with lemon Jell-O and set it in a mold to enchant their guests. This lead to the extinction of guests. Hundreds of cookbooks with whole chapters devoted to what to serve unexpected guests had to be torn up and thrown on the fire.

Today it is as unfathomable for us to consider a world without color photography as it is to imagine eating a ham cabbage mold. Never have so many been so thankful for black and white photography as we are now, right this minute, when we look at the top of this page.

Salad Book, Better Homes and Gardens, 1969

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