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Cathy's World: Lileks' 'Regrettable Food'

By CATHERINE SEIPP   |   Oct. 30, 2002 at 9:52 AM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 30 (UPI) -- If you're in the market for a suitably terrifying Halloween present -- or, next month, a wittily unappetizing Thanksgiving present -- I can think of nothing better than James Lileks' book "The Gallery of Regrettable Food."

This is a Mr. Toad's Wild Ride (hilarious, exhilarating, possibly nauseating) back to the specific world of recipe booklets and food ads from the '40s, '50s and '60s.

Lileks, a Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist whose own Web site (www.lileks.com) of kitsch memorabilia plus daily "screeds" and "bleats" commands a devoted cult following on the Internet, furiously annotates these old ads in elaborate flights of fancy.

Here's what he has to say about a bottle of slightly anthropomorphized Lea & Perrins sauce, for some reason depicted holding an impressive set of cutlery over a roast chicken: "It has no sight ... it has limbs ... it has no brain ... it must CARVE, and CARVE some more."

In an alarming chapter on "the quivering solid salad," Lileks imagines the inner life of a jellied mold filled with what looks like several cups of shredded radish:

"While everyone was laughing and joking over the roast, the mold evolved at a rate scientists had thought implausible for a salad. With blinding speed it formed a neural net -- dendrites snaking from cell to cell, connecting with pimento nodes, feeding off the olive glands."

"By 7 p.m. it was self-aware. By 8 p.m. it had developed the powers of cognition and the ability to observe its surroundings. At 8:32, when it was placed on the dinner table, it realized that it had no mouth and no limbs, and it was completely, utterly screwed."

And don't even get him started on the comic book adventures of Aunt Jenny, who taught a generation of nervous new brides how to cook with a lard substitute called Spry.

"I LOVE Aunt Jenny!" exclaimed Lileks, when I called to ask about this. "That's what's so unfair about this book -- these things were never intended to endure the level of scrutiny I've given them. One day I got this letter from a guy who was deeply bothered, and pretty hammered too, about my attitude toward the meat dishes."

Lileks, who grew up in Fargo, N.D., has had something of a circuitous career. He attended the University of Minnesota, taking classes in philosophy and whatever else struck his fancy, but never graduated.

"I was in college seven years before the fruitlessness of the endeavor just became too apparent to me," he recalled. "I dropped out. But it wasn't a waste: I did get seven years of fabulous education. Then I drifted off and became a convenience store clerk."

Lileks was working at Ralph and Jerry's in Minneapolis -- "one of the all time great convenience stores" -- when an editor of a free local weekly wandered in, struck up a series of conversations, and eventually asked him to write a piece.

This led to a job at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, then a four-year stint in Washington, D.C. writing a column for Newhouse News Service in the mid-'90s. But Lileks missed the Midwest and hated Washington.

"It's got a hideous murder rate," he says. "And you have to accept and like the notion that there's something inherently fascinating about the infrastructure of the federal government."

Lileks often comments on politics, though, and his often-surreal imagery and take-no-prisoners sarcasm have made him something of a god in the online world. This is not an exaggeration. I told him he was referred to that way at a UCLA bloggers panel I attended.

"Oh, for heaven's sake," Lileks responded, sounding very Fargo.

Probably Lileks' most famous Internet piece is his now-legendary "Notes on the Olive Garden," a deconstruction he did earlier this year of a condescending essay on America published in the U.K. newspaper the Guardian.

"It's a Big Sweeping On-Location piece, an attempt to parse the yawp of deep dark America and the find the source of Washington's new chilliness towards its European allies," Lileks explained at the time in his "Olive Garden" introduction.

"It subscribes to the laziest sort of parachute journalism: find a Symbol of America, talk to a guy eating supper, and discern the Pulse of the Culture ... "

An excerpt from Lileks' "screedly annotated version" of the Guardian report:

The Guardian: "The Olive Garden Italian restaurant looks a little more promising than the dozens of other eating places along the strip mall just off Interstate 20 in Birmingham, Alabama. The discreet hint of Tuscan décor and the passable wine list disguise the fact that there are 476 other Olive Gardens across North America, all with precisely the same menu."

Lileks: "That's right. It's called 'standardization,' and it makes it logistically possible to run chains that span three thousand miles and simultaneously depend on local suppliers and national ad campaigns. It has its emotional cost, as the European keenly notes. Diners in Maine often put down their Olive Garden menus, stare into the middle distance, haunted by the suspicion that the exact same alignment of foodstuffs is also offered in San Diego. They shake it off and get back to ordering, but the feeling that their veal's seasoning has been predetermined in a far-off corporate office gives the meal a false and hollow taste ... "

The Guardian: "And from the Olive Garden it does seem very distant. Indeed the whole messy and diverse concept of Europe seems very distant. Around Birmingham, there is nothing but miles and miles of Alabama."

Lileks: "Apparently around Birmingham, England, there is nothing but miles and miles of Belgium, Thailand and the Antarctic Ice Shelf."

Anyway, Lileks may mock bad food, but as his defense of the Olive Garden piece indicates, he's also at core also a loyal fan. The germ of the idea for "The Gallery of Regrettable Food" came when he discovered a few years ago a pile of old recipe booklets the Welcome Wagon lady had delivered to his mother, just after the Lileks family had moved into their new Fargo home in 1962.

Mrs. Lileks, her son recalled loyally, "was a fine North Dakota cook. She made a fabulous hamburger and rice hot dish. That needs a deft hand to keep it from becoming an indefinable gluey mess. She made food that kept everybody going."

Lileks, who's currently working on a new book about regrettable home décor, cautions against viewing the past through too thick a film of patronizing irony.

"The truth of those times won't be found in these pages. These are the commercial bones of the past, what we're left with. They're mostly lies that promise happiness and, of course, they can't deliver it," he muses in "Regrettable Food's" introduction.

"Did my mom believe that any of these (recipe booklets) would make her life perfect? Of course not ... Some people smoked, some took pills, some ran to keep off the weight. Mom just looked at the pictures. The recipes kept her slim and lovely for one reason: She never made them."

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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