hat were they thinking? How did they eat this bilge? Good questions, but you won't find them answered here. This is a simple introduction to poorly photographed foodstuffs and horrid recipes. It's a wonder anyone in the 40s, 50s and 60s gained any weight; it's a miracle that people didn't put down their issue of Life magazine with a slight queasy list to their gut, and decide to sup on a nice bowl of shredded wheat and nothing else. It wasn't that the food was inedible; it was merely dull. Everything was geared for a timid palate fearful of spice. It wasn't non- nutritious - no, between the limp boiled vegetables, fat-choked meat cylinders and pink-whipped-jello dessert, you were bound to find a few calories that would drag you into the next day. It's that the pictures are so hideously unappealing.
here have all these images slumbered, lo these many decades? In small faded books, shoved in the back of some Mom's pantry. They're collector's items now - but of course, eventually, everything is a collector item. I find them in antique stores, stacked carelessly, forgotten and overpriced, or carefully stowed in plastic envelopes, pristine, awaiting the collector's discerning eye. There's a market for these books.
But why? It's possible that many of the people who buy these books regard them as prime sourcebooks, texts from the Golden Age of Butter. Maybe some appreciate the camp value, but whatever snickering amusement you get from the pictures and text passes quickly. I can't see anyone pulling out their collection on a winter's night and amusing themselves with 50 year old cookie recipes.
Perhaps the main reason people buy these books is the Mom factor. At least that's my excuse. They're everyday relics of another time, my parents' time, and this gives them a poignancy they do not deserve, and do nothing to earn. But I love them anyway.
They're not really recipe books. They're ads for food companies, with every recipe using the company's products, often in unexpected ways. (Hot day? Kids love a frosty Bacon Milkshake!) There's not a single edible dish in the entire collection. The pictures in the books are ghastly - the Italian dishes look like a surgeon got a sneezing fit during an operation, and the queasy casseroles look like something on which the janitor dumps sawdust. But you have to enjoy the spirit behind the books - cheerful postwar perfect housewifery is taught in every book. Sure, you'll fall short of the ideal. But what's an ideal for, if not to show up your shortcomings?
--J. Lileks 2024
PS Aside from the Menu cards, there will be scant updates in 2024. We'll be back in 2025 with more, of course.