The Gallery of Regrettable Food: Highlights from Classic American Recipe Books

by James Lileks

Published by Crown

192 pages, 2001

Buy it online




Culinary Catastrophes

Reviewed by David Middleton


There is an odd and miraculous set of events that must come together in order for a meal to appear appetizing and not just like a jumble of vegetation and cooked animal flesh plopped on a plate. Look in any modern cookbook and what you'll see are mouthwatering stylings where the edible looks rich, glossy, colorful, sinfully fresh, lustrous with succulent juices, redolent with the perfect proportions of creams and fats and sauces. Glistening meats and radiant vegetables burst off the page in an explosion of highly saturated color and razor sharp photography. Meals so well designed that to eat them would be a crime against art.

Such is not the case with The Gallery of Regrettable Food, author and Minneapolis - St. Paul Star Tribune columnist James Lileks' ode to those days when food stylists and photographers had scarcely risen up from all fours. Lileks takes us back to the bad old days when we were little more than kitchen Neanderthals; ripping up tubers and sawing meat off the bones of some poor ruminant. Yes, back to a time when people thought it a good idea to baste a lamb roast with three bottles of 7-Up and serve a mixture of hot cream of chicken soup and sherry as a cocktail.

Culled from such culinary sources as Specialties of the House, The Ten P.M. Cook Book, 500 Snacks, Big Boy Barbecue Book and ads and brochures all sprouting up from America's postwar boom, Regrettable Food is full of the most disgusting, appalling and repulsive food photographs I have had the displeasure of viewing. I also don't think I have laughed harder than when I was reading this book. While most of the food looks like something eaten on a dare and thrown up by a drunken frat boy, there is an innocent genuiness surrounding the basic ideas of the presented food and Lileks exploits that naiveté at every turn coming up with hilarious captions for these poor hideous and inhuman science experiments gone awry.

You know, most guests really don't like it when the dinner loaf has a spinal column.

This is one of the odd Precambrian dissection projects that pop up in these old books. It appears to be some sort of fossilized carcass covered with cream cheese; the orange wedges indicate the likely location of the limbs. You can imagine this thing scooting around in the primordial muck.

Perhaps that circle is not a cross section of a spine, but a blowhole (ahem) of sorts -- or a false eye to confuse predators. Put it on the floor and watch it frighten the dog.

As well as vain attempts at making food seem appetizing, the 50s seemed rife with copywriters striving to make the putrid palatable by taking a few liberties with the English language. The result is culinary descriptions that, while well intentioned, come off as just plain silly. How 'bout a Benedictish Frankwich or some of father's Beef & Kidney Stew, a two-faced hamburger or some Gosh and Golly Relish slathered over a Shrimpkin. Maybe a few hors d' oeuvres consisting of Balls on Picks, Burning Bush and Green Balls. Lileks has more than a little fun with these unfortunate noms de cuisine.

Balls on Picks is not the best way to get the fellas over for a pregame nosh. The name alone makes men cross their legs. Green Balls and Burning Bush sounds like a married couple sharing a simultaneous STD eruption.

Looking through this book does beg the question: did the well intentioned folks who created these images really think we were going to eat these atrocities? Actually put them in our mouths and chew... even swallow? From creamed er, whatever in a bowl and gaily colored Jell-O molds full of what looks suspiciously like pig ears through to things that are truly unrecognizable, The Gallery of Regrettable Food will have you gagging with laughter and reminiscing that your mother's peanut butter and beet casserole might not have been so bad. An interesting and informative look at some deliciously and decidedly retro ideas of what American commercial consumerism wanted you to think was wholesome and healthy. | October 2001


David Middleton is the art and culture editor of January Magazine and once, while eating lunch, laughed so hard borscht shot out his nose. Funny thing was he was eating pork chops at the time.