NEAL CONAN, host:
Author James Lileks calls the 1930s, '40s and '50s the golden age of American cookery. His new book "Gastroanomalies" looks back on dishes like the Burning Bush, Dried Beef, Philadelphia Cream Cheese and Grapefruit, the Corned Beef Salad Loaf and the Meat Upside Down Cake.
Lileks' book is filled with ads and old photographs and recipes for dishes he describes as monuments to an era. Did anybody actually make this stuff and did anybody actually eat it? Call us with your culinary regrets and confessions from the '50s. Our number is 800-989-8255. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. And comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation, where there's an excerpt from James Lileks' books and a few photographs, too.
And James Lileks joins us now from Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Nice to have you on the program today.
Mr. JAMES LILEKS (Author, "Gastroanomalies"): And welcome from preposterously cold Minnesota…
CONAN: Preposterously cold. It's getting colder here in Washington, D.C. I am looking at a picture on page 12 of your book. These…
Mr. LILEKS: Oh, you poor man.
CONAN: These eggs, you write, resemble creamed bile with mustard sauce, and the ubiquitous white fluid makes it impossible to eat this with your hands. The meat's nice and clammy, but really: Is there enough fat in this dish? If your corpuscles don't have to go single-file through your major arteries, you can still indulge in a little more. Have two.
These are grotesque-looking pieces of food.
Mr. LILEKS: That - they are, and that's the pleasure. You know, for all I know, nobody made any of these stuff. For all I know, the housewives of the '30s, '40s and '50s put these things down and steadied themselves with a little Bromo-Seltzer, put their hand over their stomach and hope that it would pass and just moved on to cooking the things that they knew the family would like.
But for some reason, the manufacturers of food, the recipe companies, the magazines, all put out these pictures of - if ghastly is the word - of these strange, oleaginous, glistening dishes that they thought people would like.
Once you start looking for them, you can't - you can't be - you're stunned by the quantity of inedible food that they seemed to think people should make in those days.
CONAN: And many…
Mr. LILEKS: Again…
CONAN: …of the worst - I'm sorry, I didn't mean to cut you off.
Mr. LILEKS: No, I'm just going on and rambling here. But it's - it really is extraordinary to realize that people were expected to eat these things. And once you start looking for them, as I said, you realize that people out there have been collecting these recipe books themselves with the same sort of guilty fascination and horror.
The minute you start talking about these, they say, my mom had a book like that, and then they mail it to you and you have no choice but to put out another book.
CONAN: Indeed, a little like trying to drive past a car wreck without looking at it. The worst sinners, it seems to me, at least looking through this book, a lot of them seem to involve sauces of dubious origin and jelly of some sort.
Mr. LILEKS: They love their jelly. They love their sauces. But most of all, they love their Jell-Ok it seems. For the '30s and '40s and '50s, there was vogue that I can never quite come to a good explanation for for suspending things. In these aspects, they would suspend the carrots, they would suspend the celery. And these were passed off as meals and desserts.
I have a 7-year-old, and I can well imagine if I put down for her as dessert something that was green and jiggly and had celery embedded in it as though it had been frozen there in time. So, yeah, they loved all of these things and, again, it may just be that photography was a little bit less spectacularly sophisticated than it is today.
Perhaps if you took some of these dishes and put them in the fine bon appetit magazines and gave them a nice name and assured people that the fennel was organic and had been handpicked by, you know, nuns at midnight, people would think these are wonderful things.
But given the palette of the time and the reproduction capabilities of the time, the things glisten just a little bit more than you'd like them to, food-wise. But, yeah, it wasn't just the jellies. It wasn't just the sauces. It was the strange things they eat that people no longer considered to be choice number one when it comes to putting things down your gullet, some of the peculiar meats, for example.
CONAN: Yeah, you know, fruit cocktail in Jell-O, bananas in Jell-O, even celery in Jell-O - corned beef in Jell-O?
Mr. LILEKS: Oh, of course, why not? I would love to actually have a party where you put Jell-O in Jell-O, where you would suspend in Jell-O actual boxes of Jell-O or even little plastic cups that you can buy nowadays. That would be the (unintelligible) of the Jell-O in Jell-O suspended routine. Yeah. And again, these things required molds, molds the size of a bathtub.
And for some reason, even though the houses of the size of the times were smaller and the kitchens were far more compact, housewives were expected to have these gargantuan tubs into which they could pour the jellies and the Jell-O and the aspic, and artfully arrange the radishes in stratified layers that look like some strange geological formation.
I mean, I know what it's like every time I opened up a drawer and 15 pans tumble out. The idea of having 17 large items into which I could pour Jell-O for desserts seems to be preposterous. Then again, they had different values than we have today.
CONAN: We're talking with James Lileks about his new book "Gastroanomalies: Questionable Culinary Creations from the Golden Age of American Cookery." 800-989-8255, if you'd like to get in on this conversation.
And let's go to - this is Deborah(ph), Deborah is with us from Phoenix in Arizona.
DEBORAH (Caller): Yes. Good afternoon to you, gentlemen.
DEBORAH: I'm a big fan of gastro history and I've read everything including the Sterns books. And so I have to bring up one of the classic dishes of the '50s, the sandwich loaf. You know the loaf of bread that was cut and arranged and iced like a cake.
Mr. LILEKS: Mm-hmm.
DEBORAH: And I'm just wondering, what's your erstwhile gentleman thinks of the sandwich loaf?
Mr. LILEKS: I see many, many variations on it. Sometimes, it's called a party loaf, too. And if they wanted to really give it a party aspect, they would sprinkle it with some sort of strange-colored coconut confetti that would bring that parade atmosphere, because we've all been to a parade where a large, giant loaf of bread frosted over and spangled with confetti was dragged down the street. So, you know, hence to the party aspect.
I've seen those things and it's, again, you wonder how they were eaten. I'm not sure anybody actually was able to get it from plates to mouth without the entire thing going into their laps. So either everyone ate with spatulas or they just simply regarded to having the meal end up on the floor for the dog is probably more routine.
DEBORAH: And I also bring up something else, the fact that in the South, these dishes are still treasured, so you're actually hitting on Southern cuisine when you bring this up.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LILEKS: I do. I am and I do so with great respect. One of the things that I didn't bring up in the book because it is still current is the prevalence of brains. Yeah. You don't see a lot of brains in my book, but you will be able to find canned brains in any number of stores in certain parts of the country.
Mr. LILEKS: But they're still…
DEBORAH: And in the end, they make a friend brain sandwich, although I've never tasted it.
Mr. LILEKS: It's good eaten.
DEBORAH: I never had the courage.
CONAN: Deborah, thanks very much for the call.
DEBORAH: Thank you and have a good day. I love your show.
CONAN: Oh, thanks very much for that.
Let's see if we can go now to Gary(ph), Gary is with us from Sacramento in California.
GARY (Caller): Yes, hi.
GARY: WhileI was raised, the Yankee of north, my folks, were from the south and it was quite common on the weekend to have scrambled pig - pig brains scrambled with eggs for breakfast. And…
CONAN: Were these canned brains?
GARY: Oh, no. Back then - we're talking back in '50s and '60s they would get them fresh from the butcher.
Mr. LILEKS: Did that make them better?
GARY: Well, actually, we enjoy them back then. I - when I got married a couple of decades later, my wife decided - my new bride decided that she would make them for me just to - because she love me and…
(Soudbite of laughter)
GARY: …she had no clue how bad they stunk and she was just about nauseous before she threw them away.
Mr. LILEKS: I'm beginning to think tat I should've put much more brains in this book than I did. I'm going to have to issue an erratum slip that is included in the second edition, you know, error: there should be more brains in this book. I…
GARY: Even when I called in a moment ago and your screener asked me what dish I was talk - calling about and I mentioned pig brains scrambled with eggs, her only comment was, you're kidding, right?
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Gary, thanks very much. And happy anniversary.
GARY: We're divorced now.
Mr. LILEKS: I'm worried about the eggs part, though, that can be just murder on your cholesterol.
CONAN: Let's go to Theresa(ph), Theresa with us from Oakland in California.
THERESA (Caller): Hello James Lileks. My husband and I are huge fans of yours.
Mr. LILEKS: Oh, well, thank you.
THERESA: He actually gave me your book "Interior Desecrations" for Christmas last year, and it's one of our favorites to lie up in bed and read late at night and laugh ourselves silly.
Mr. LILEKS: Well, thank you.
THERESA: I - we actually have an art deco society in California. And one of the things that we do every year, we've done it for 25 years, is we have a huge formal picnic that's 1920s style, and a lot of the people dig out all sorts of incredible recipes including things like candlestick salad, which I don't if you're familiar with.
CONAN: Candlestick salad?
THERESA: Yes. You take a slice of hot canned pineapple and you insert into the center a banana and you top it with a little bit of mayonnaise and a dot of Mentos.
(Soundbite of noise)
Mr. LILEKS: Mm-hmm.
CONAN: The mayonnaise, that's what got me.
THERESA: Oh, yeah.
CONAN: Yeah, yeah.
THERESA: And I'm really famous for my sandwich loaf that I've been making. This is a…
CONAN: Another sandwich loaf call.
THERESA: Yes. I - but I'm known to make them in all sorts of ways. And I particularly like taking cream cheese and frosting them so that they look like cakes, which confuses guests who haven't been before, especially when it's…
CONAN: And do these guests ever come back?
THERESA: No, they come - once they get pass the look of it, they really like it, like the smoked salmon sandwich loaf that was sort of gingham bad a flat bias pink was such a hit that I made it one other time. And I'm (unintelligible) on bringing my husband and me together because the other guests left the sandwich loaf on the kitchen floor and we found out that the dog - my dog had eaten most of it.
CONAN: Oh boy.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Sometimes dog is man's best friend. Anyway, Theresa thanks very much for the call.
THERESA: You're quite welcome.
Mr. LILEKS: Thanks, Theresa.
CONAN: And I just wanted to read some of the e-mails that have been pouring in.
My mother-in-law, writes Linda(ph) from Rochester, my mother-in-law once offered a salad made of Jell-O with green onions in it to go with our dinner. When my father-in-law vehemently declined, she said, well I served it to the Birch Club today and they love it. He replied, yes but they had had several martinis under their belts.
This from Beth(ph) in Cincinnati.
One of my favorites dishes as a child and one I do not dare try as an adult if scrambled eggs with a can of condensed tomato soup mixed with it and served on toast.
(Soundbite of distaste)
Mr. LILEKS: Well, there was a lot of that about then. One of the things that that I don't think we're going to get a lot of people calling in about, perhaps, are the variety meats. They seemed to have fallen out of favor. And I think there's a great block, a mental block, a mass amnesiac forgetting that the American people have visited upon themselves to forget the sort of meats that they were fed.
In World War II, you could understand, when meat was short, why they had to consume, you know, hog duodenum and the rest of it. But even in the '50s, they were trodding out these variety meats in this recipe books. And they have some of them in "Gastroanomalies" that, again, modernize just simply blanched when they see what they are.
It's one thing to say, for example, we're going to serve heart. I mean, if you tell your family what's for dinner, heart, they expected that something is going to be done to conceal it. But if you look at the actual photograph that they present, it is heart. You can look at the ventricles. You can see the actual anatomical details. And it looks like something you would find a in a Halloween tableau. But here, in this cookbook, it's supper. And so the heart and the various thyroids and all the other things that were perfectly happy if they mince them up and put them in hotdog form, then we'll eat them. That's good eating. That's Fourth of July. But if you actually display the organ out there with a little bit of parsley garnish as they do in the pictures in this book.
CONAN: A lot of parsley in the book, too, yeah.
Mr. LILEKS: A lots of parsley. Parsley is the great concealer. Architects cover their problems with bushes, so did the cooks cover their problems with parsley. If you lay it out there with enough parsley, apparently people will be encouraged to eat it, but nobody ever really confesses to mom having served them heart.
CONAN: We're talking with James Lileks about his new book, "Gastroanomalies: Questionable Culinary Creations from the Golden Age of American Cookery."
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's get another caller on the line. This is Kathy(ph), Kathy calling from Troy in New York.
KATHY (Caller): Hi. No, this is Troy, Michigan.
CONAN: Troy, Michigan. All right.
KATHY: Yeah. How are you?
CONAN: I'm well. Thank you.
KATHY: I wanted to tell you about my very first taste of aspic, which was just this past Thanksgiving.
I was born in the '50s and I've eaten plenty of things.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KATHY: And we had out-of-town guests who were probably planning to bring their tomato aspic for our Thanksgiving dinner. The first one flew out of the trunk and landed on the driveway and broken into pieces, so they ran out to the store to get all the ingredients once again and it jelled up just enough to have for dinner. And I had never had it and I was really looking forward to it and it was not good at all.
CONAN: So beware urges that lunge you from the mid-century.
Mr. LILEKS: Most people are shocked to find that congealed mealy tomato soup isn't as soon as it sounds.
KATHY: Well, I expected it to be much more tomatoey(ph) and flavorful, and that was really nothing.
Mr. LILEKS: You know flavor, flavor, no. You see if you're talking to '50s cuisine, flavor is one of those things that they had to avoid. If you look at a lot of the recipes that are printed in "Gastroanomalies" and even in the predecessor "The Gallery of Regrettable Food" they will give you ingredients that specify that certain spices are only to be used under extreme circumstances.
If you're making something Mexican, for example, you are allowed to use chili powder. However you must don asbestos gloves and get a thong, preferably the things that they use to manipulate atoms and electron microscopy and get out individual grains of cayenne pepper to put in the dish that will feed 20 because if you have - if you use two or three grains for heaven sakes, fire will erupt from people's collars. They were terrified it seems of the sort of level of spice that we cheerfully keep on everything from cinnamon rolls to eggs to hamburgers to popcorn.
Kathy, we thank you for sharing your delightful Thanksgiving dinner with us.
KATHY: Well, you're quiet welcome. Thank you.
CONAN: All right. Thanks very much.
Here's a couple more e-mails.
I can't hardly write this without gagging, says Cynthia(ph): chipped beef on toast. Yuck.
Mr. LILEKS: Mm-hmm.
CONAN: And this from Jerry in Kalamazoo.
When I was a kid in the '50s, my favorite dinner of all was a mixture of an equal measure of Franco-American spaghetti and Campbell's beans. I don't know why, he asked.
Mr. LILEKS: Mm-hmm.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LILEKS: Yeah, the beans were good. One of the dishes - it is my favorite -is actually a big, huge, vat of beans into which you stick these perpendicular wieners. And the most - it's just insouciant. It's just the most gallingly, you know, disrespectful dish you can possibly imagine. All these wieners just standing up that are wagging at you. But they love the beans and they love the wieners.
The one thing that is good about the period, even, you know, the little snarky cherry-picking of their cuisine aside, is the machinery they used to hold the stuff - the refrigerators. It was - I mean, this was an era which refrigerators looked as good as cars, and you know right down the practically the tailfins and the chrome. I mean, if you couldn't actually have a dish that looked palatable, at least you could have machinery to put in that had industrial design.
CONAN: Let me conclude by reading your description of the cross-section of Clown Mountain which reveals, you write:
An inner rich core of lava ready to erupt with deliciousness. Tasty as it certainly looks, you have to wonder about portion size. I mean, about 30 cubic inches of dessert minimum that's not to cut it open before guest arrive or they might suspect it's actually nine pounds of margarine over a pile of raw hamburger.
James Lileks, remind me not to have you over for dinner.
Mr. LILEKS: You know, now I'm hungry after that last description. Thanks a lot.
CONAN: James Lileks' book is "Gastroanomalies: Questionable Culinary Creations from the Golden Age of American Cookery." He joins today from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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