THE WORST THING I EVER TASTED

It was while leafing through a book titled “THE GALLERY OF REGRETTABLE FOOD” by James Lileks that I began to give serious thought to all of the bad food out there. Right up along with the bad food is a bad recipe.

Topping the list of “Bad Food” would be my mother’s library-paste rice and Hasenpfeffer (sweet and sour rabbit). Mom didn’t have much talent with cabbage, either. She would put it on to boil around 9 am so it would be slimy mush by 6 PM when we had dinner. My sister Barbara shudders at the memory of mom’s lima beans while we all pinch our noses remembering the smell of kidney stew. My mother’s philosophy seemed to be, if the recipe called for being cooked one or two hours, then three or four (or more) would be quite a lot better.  Granted, we never suffered the ill effects of eating undercooked food and dinner could sometimes be a mystery game, guessing what was in the pot. In the words of one writer, “she did not so much cook as assassinate food.”

I was born just as World War II began and not only were a lot of foods rationed, many things were simply unavailable. My mother stretched her ten-dollars-a-week grocery allowance by cooking a lot of organ meats, which were very cheap and unrationed  (liver, kidneys, tongue, and brains). Ew, ew. (No, don’t tell me it tastes just like scrambled eggs).

And, a child’s imagination could run wild with the names of certain things. Take “head cheese”. Actually, it’s not a cheese but more like a lunchmeat, but do you know why it’s called “head cheese”?  It was made with the head of a calf or a pig.  As for my own particular aversion to stewed rabbit, I’m not sure which I despised the most – the rabbit or the occasional BB that would be found floating around in the gravy. We only had hasenpfeffer when my father went rabbit hunting. The rabbits were then cleaned at the kitchen sink. Some things are better done out of the sight of small children. After I watched my then-husband clean fish shortly after we were married, I only ate fish sticks for several years. I think the only kind of fish my mother ever cooked were salmon patties (which, oddly enough is one of my comfort foods) but which bear no resemblance to anything that once swam in the ocean.

All of which only demonstrates that much of the visceral reaction we experience with certain foods can be traced to how the food was prepared, along with the deep-seated American aversion to eating some parts of an animal but not others.

James Lileks’s book “THE GALLERY OF REGRETTABLE FOOD”, published by Crown Publishers in 2001, is, in the words of the publishers, a simple introduction to poorly photographed foodstuffs and horrid recipes from the “Golden Age of Salt and Starch”.  They point out that it’s a wonder anyone in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s gained any weight. “It isn’t that the food was inedible,” they note, “It was merely dull. Everything was geared toward a timid palate fearful of spice. It wasn’t non-nutritious—no, between the limp boiled vegetables, fat-choked meat cylinders and pink whipped Jell-O desserts, you were bound to find a few calories that would drag you into the next day. It’s just that the pictures are so hideously unappealing…”

Author James Lileks has made it his life’s work to unearth the worst recipes and food photography from that bygone era. His project began when he went home to Fargo, North Dakota, and found an ancient recipe book in his mom’s cupboard. The book was “SPECIALTIES OF THE HOUSE” from the North Dakota State Wheat Commission.  Lileks points out that these are not really recipe books; they’re actually ads for food companies with every recipe using the company’s products, often in unexpected and horrifying ways.

Lileks recalls how the pamphlet got into his mother’s kitchen cupboard in the first place; when his family moved to Fargo in 1962, a lady from the Welcome Wagon (remember Welcome Wagons? They came around with a bag of gifts, pamphlets, and samples.)  His mother took one look at “SPECIALTIES OF THE HOUSE” and stuck it away in a closet, in the back, under the Rand McNally atlas that no one used. And that’s where it remained until Lileks discovered it, in pristine condition, in 1996.  Says Lileks, “To modern eyes, the pictures in the book are ghastly, florid, gorge-tweaking abominations—the Italian dishes look like what happened when a surgeon get s a sneezing fit during an operation, and the queasy casseroles look like something the dog heaved up on the good rug….”

Lileks was off on a quest, checking through the rest of his mother’s cookbook collection and from there poking through garage-sale residues and rescuing tattered books from dusty bins in antique stores.

The illustrations and caustic comments provided by Lileks throughout his book are, at least, entertaining—even though you may not be inspired to dash out to the kitchen to whip up a batch of Campfire Marshmallow Fairy or Beet Pie Casserole, much less creamed brains on toast or Tongue Rolls Florentine.  However, you will enjoy reading the book and taking a nostalgic trip back in time when food company photography left something (actually, quite a lot) to be desired.

In defense of food companies and the recipe booklets being published today, I’d have to say, you’ve come a long way, baby. Some of my favorite recipe booklets include those from Quaker Oats, Sun-Maid Raisins, Pillsbury and Betty Crocker. I believe that the recipes in these booklets are tested and re-tested and can be relied upon to produce good results. And, cookbook publishers have also come a long way with food photography. Today, there are photographers specializing in this one particular area of photography, whose dazzling illustrations are sure to make your mouth water and have you trotting out to the kitchen to try their recipe. (I’ve often started out leafing through a cookbook, found myself inspired by the illustrations and then found myself spending the rest of the day in the kitchen).

James Lileks was a columnist for the Minneapolis-St Paul Star Tribune and has a website, “THE INSTITUTE OF OFFICIAL CHEER” (still online) on which “THE GALLERY OF REGRETTABLE FOOD” was based and can be seen at www.lileks.com.  And even though “THE GALLERY OF REGRETTABLE FOOD” isn’t exactly what we would call a cookbook – it does contain some recipes. More than anything, it’s great fun to read.

If you want your own copy of “THE GALLERY OF REGRETTABLE FOOD”, I found it for as little as $1.00 on Alibris.com. Copies start at $46.25 (new) or $16.97 (pre owned) on Amazon.com (I can’t begin to explain the disparity in prices on these books. Obviously, somebody somewhere is disillusioned about the worth of their book).

But I wanted to discuss with you something besides just pictures of bad food. What about bad recipes?

I became curious about bad recipes initially when I was reading an (albeit unauthorized) biography about Martha Stewart.  The author claimed that many of the recipes in the first books published by Martha Stewart were not thoroughly tested, much to the dismay of unsuspecting readers.

James Beard, in a newspaper article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 1984, when writing about Marion Cunningham’s 12th edition of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, wrote that “Research is Key to a Cookbook”.   “In preparing this book,” Beard wrote, “Cunningham spent many months doing research. She interviewed millers about flour, chocolate manufacturers about cocoa beans, microbiologists about yeast; she left no stone unturned to discover the secrets of fine baking and what it entails. And she baked and baked and baked.  At the end of it all, she produced a book that is so straightforward you can trust every recipe…””

Have you ever followed a recipe from a reputable cookbook, only to find the results dismally disappointing?  I have!  One notable experience involved a Betty Crocker cookbook and Baked Alaska. I wrote to the publishers to complain and received a reply that is still somewhere in my files. General Mills stood staunchly by their recipe. I was never bold enough to try it again.  Now, many years later, I feel I can often tell from just reading a recipe whether it sounds right to me. (This must be the inner voice of experience talking to me!).  One cookbook editor said that “the results you get by touching and smelling and seeing is what nobody knows anymore. Their grandmother didn’t teach them, their mother didn’t teach them and they haven’t a clue.” I don’t pretend to be a gourmet cook. I am a reasonably good cook who relies on cookbooks for most of my inspiration. But, if I don’t like the way a recipe is going, I’ve been known—often—to change it midstream. It’s one of the reasons I can never give anyone my recipes for homemade soup. It’s rarely ever made the same way twice.

My curiosity about bad recipes was further piqued when someone sent me a food section from the San Jose Mercury News, published in September, 1994.  The story was written by Kathie Jenkins of the Los Angeles Times, whose name I recognized. Jenkins opens the article, titled “IT’S NOT YOU, IT’S THE RECIPE” by relating the story of a lady whose hobby is trying recipes until she finds the perfect one. In her quest for the perfect crab cake, this cook tried many different versions including several provided by notable cookbook authors. “They were soggy little balls of yuck,” she reported.  “Even my husband wouldn’t touch them, which is really amazing. They were too disgusting.”

All of this came as no surprise, Jenkins reports, “to the owner of the Cook’s Library, Los Angeles’ only all-cookbook shop (which closed its doors on April 30, 2009). “More than half the books in my store have at least one recipe that doesn’t work” reported the storeowner.  And John Taylor, who owns a culinary bookstore in South Carolina and is the author of “Hoppin’ John’s Low Country Cooking” observed that, if he only sold books where the recipes worked, he wouldn’t have any books on his shelves.

The trouble is, writes Kathie Jenkins, that recipe testing is nearly always left to authors who must do it or pay for it.  “For cookbook authors,” Jenkins notes, “slaving over a test kitchen stove can pay big dividends. The most popular personalities can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars. Added to this are revenues from product endorsements, consultant fees, sponsorships, television shows, and video cassettes.”

Or,” she continues, “in the case of style czarina Martha Stewart, your very own magazine. She started out as a Connecticut caterer, wrote the book, “Entertaining,” and parlayed that into a reported $2 million empire – plus a stream of royalties from television shows, videos, CDs and all those Martha Stewart products sold at Kmart…”

Jenkins notes that a famous name is no guarantee that the recipes work, however.  Hoppin’ John Taylor commented, “Nobody in their right mind buys a Martha Stewart Book for a recipe.  They buy them for her ideas and great pictures. If a recipe works in a Martha Stewart book, it’s somebody else’s.”

In defense of Martha Stewart (and apologies to Martha Stewart fans), a spokesperson for Martha Stewart commented, “That quote sounds like somebody in the cookbook business who wrote a book and it didn’t sell. I think those are just sour grapes.”

Whether it’s sour grapes or not, I’ll leave that for all of you to decide. What is relevant to the subject at hand is that cookbook publishers have no test kitchens. Most newspapers don’t either and consequently, they can’t test every recipe they print from a cookbook. Most recipes are printed as they appear in cookbooks or from wire services. For what it’s worth, the Los Angeles Times does have a test kitchen and a staff to cook in it.  All of the recipes in the “Best of the Best” cookbooks published by Quail Ridge Press are pre-tested.  You can generally expect a well-prepared Junior League cookbook to have tested recipes and they will often tell you so in their book by thanking the committee of testers who worked on the recipes.  Jenkins notes that, unlike newspapers, which can correct a recipe the following week, if necessary, cookbook publishers can’t correct even the mistakes they’ll admit to, short of a recall or waiting until the next printing. And while cookbook publishers claim to care about accuracy in recipes, Jenkins notes, most are unwilling to spend the money to make sure the recipes actually work. In a standard publishing contract, the responsibility of recipe testing is left up to the writers.

Added to the mistakes that may be made somewhere between the writing of the cookbook and its publication, there is another important element to all of this.  It translates to the difference between the kitchen of the cookbook author and the kitchen of the person who purchased the cookbook.

Author Paul Reidinger has written, “But the curious truth about recipes is that they often produce dramatically different results in different hands in different kitchens. Many times over the years I’ve told interested parties how I roast my chickens and make my salsa, and I am always convinced that my methods are simple and bulletproof – until I am advised that somebody else used one of my recipes exactly and still ended up with a mess.  These admonishments remind me that recipes are only partly science; following a recipe is not like solving a quadratic equation.  There is play involved, wiggle room, variance, uncertainty, and the person in charge has to know how to adjust.”

It’s also fairly well known that famed cookbook author Elizabeth David disliked giving exact measurements in her recipes. John Thorne, editor of a cooking newsletter called Simple Cooking, in writing about Elizabeth David, commented, “This – although contemporary food writers (or at least their editors) consider it (i.e., David’s distaste for exact measurements) an inexplicable even reader-hostile failing – expresses a direct truth. The responsibility for a dish must finally lie not with the writer but with the cook.  Too much instruction muddles the reality of his responsibility.  Cookbooks cannot hold hands; their task is to make the reader think. In Elizabeth David’s books, reader and writer face this fact across the page….”

And, not to run this subject to the ground, there are so many variables when it comes to cooking. The cookbook author’s oven is probably not the same as yours (and do you even know if your oven temperature is completely accurate? Have you ever tested it with an oven thermometer?). Are you using the right size pan? You are probably not using the same kind of flour or baking powder as the cookbook author used. Most recipes don’t specifically state what brand of flour is used, and a lot of people are unaware that baking powder has a limited shelf life. The same goes for spices and herbs.  A lot of people don’t know that herbs and spices should be stored in a cool place, away from the stove. I was horrified to see, in a nationally circulated, well- known magazine, the photograph of a kitchen with a spice rack built right over the stove. I wrote to them to complain – that’s the worst place to put a spice rack. They did not respond to my letter.   If your herbs and spices have been languishing on a shelf near the stove for a year or two, chances are they’ll have very little potency. That could affect your recipe.

Consequently, the skill and expertise of the cook is an important factor to the outcome of recipes.  I’ve told you before the story about my neighbor, Lynn, when I lived in Florida. I gave her my recipe for chocolate chip cookies. She botched every batch of the cookies that she made. “Lynn!” I said, “That’s the recipe on the back of the Nestle’s semi-sweet morsels!   I don’t know how anyone could ruin that recipe!”

When I went next door to watch her bake the cookies, I discovered that she was forcing two cookie sheets to fit side by side on one rack since she only had one baking rack. The air couldn’t circulate and the bottoms of the cookies were always burnt.

Bottom line is, not every cooking failure can be blamed on bad recipes.

But, as Kathie Jenkins reported in her newspaper article, there are a lot of bad recipes that have appeared in cookbooks. The test crew at the Los Angeles Times did a lot of research on their own and discovered there were some real losers (including two lemon pies from Martha Stewart’s “Pies and Tarts” cookbook).  Says Jenkins, “Many of the reportedly faulty recipes not only worked but tasted wonderful.  One award-winning cookbook author griped that he could never get Rose Levy Beranbaum’s genoise to work. We did. Another complained of far too much chile oil in the spicy soba noodles in Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger’s ‘City Cuisine’. The noodles were delicious. And Marion Cunningham’s gingerbread did not run all over the oven the way one authority claimed it would.”

“So many things,” Jenkins notes, “affect how well a recipe works—equipment, weather, ingredients, personal taste. So what’s a cookbook author to do?  Vigilance and thorough working knowledge of one’s recipes are probably7 the best insurance..”

Jenkins comment on weather struck a chord. When we lived in Florida for three years, I discovered that some of my favorite recipes were simply impossible to make. The Stained Glass Window cookies simply dripped all the “stained glass” after a day or two and when I couldn’t get melted sugar to set up for the kids’ graham cracker houses, I put them into the oven thinking they would dry out. I set the oven on fire.  You simply couldn’t make any kind of meringue cookie, due to the humidity,  – and I discovered that the sugar in Florida was much grainier than the Hawaiian sugar cane sugar we were so accustomed to using. For about two years, I had a girlfriend shipping me bags of C&H sugar from California. (This is probably not a major problem for someone who has central air conditioning in their home but that was a luxury we didn’t have, at the time.    I was so happy when we moved back to California where—despite the intense heat of summers—we seldom have humidity to deal with.

“Good cooking”, wrote Yuan Mei, “does not depend on whether the dish is large or small, expensive or economical. If one has the art, then a piece of celery or salted cabbage can be made into a marvelous delicacy whereas if one has not the art, not all the greatest delicate rarities of land, sea or sky are of any avail.”

HAPPY COOKING! OR HAPPY COOKBOOK COLLECTING!

SANDY

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2 responses to “THE WORST THING I EVER TASTED

  1. My mother cooked everything to death in a pressure cooker. And sometimes dinner ended up on the ceiling. I still can’t bring myself to use a pressure cooker

  2. ROTFL, Betsy–but wanted to say I have been using a pressure cooker ever since my friend Connie gave me a T-fal one many years ago for Christmas–my son Chris broke that one prying the lid off when it was still under pressure & I have gone through several but have two in good working order right now (I think I wrote an article about pressure cookers–I will have to search for it) – today’s pressure cookers are very safe & don’t explode. it was a lifesaver when I would come home late from work & needed to get something on the table as quickly as possible. And there are many excellent cookbooks about pressure cookers. One was written by author Lorna Sass, I believe. Thanks for sharing this, made me laugh.

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