a conversation with James Lileks      

Aah...sardines. Or what we call fish torsos with the heads and tails cut off. If you'd like to disguise that fact, smother it in vinyl sauce colored with melted peach crayons.


Why The Gallery of Regrettable Food? How did you come up with the idea? I hope you didn't have to eat any of this growing up.

I think the fact that I'm hale and hearty today answers the latter part of that question. The GoRF began with one single cookbook found in my mother's cupboard--Specialties of the House. Every single page was so hideous, so unappealing, so oddly presented that I figured it would make an interesting little historical website. I certainly didn't have anything else to put on my site. (This was the mid-'90s, when the "internet" was new, and everyone had a "home page" that generally looked like "crap.") I figured I could cobble together some old ads from my Life magazine collection, write some snarky captions, put it all up and amuse dozens of people. The site won many awards--but again, this was the early days of the internet, when only three sites failed to win an award from someone. Still, I was heartened by the response to start collecting more cookbooks for a larger, expanded version.

I think it goes without saying that I was rather underemployed in those days.

In an "era deeply suspicious of flavor," period cookbooks and ads nonetheless tout the use of certain ingredients in unusual ways, like the cake made from ketchup, which is fascinating in a twisted sort of way. Why do you think that they went for creativity instead of just using normal spices?

Good question. I've no idea. Maybe they just realized that you can satisfy nearly any family with salt and fat; why make your live miserable trying to introduce cumin into your neat little world? You're just asking for trouble.

Besides skewering the pictures of the food, you also satirically deflate the political and cultural views of postwar America that underwrite these images: gender roles, Communism, xenophobia. Yet we still glorify the past; the '90s was a time of retro revisitation in which fashion, cars, slang, films, television all took inspiration from bygone eras. Why do we remain fascinated with the "good old days," despite it not really being so great?

This is a big question, and I'm going to give you a long, dull answer. I think the deflation to which you refer is actually my way of compensating for my love of this period. I'm fascinated by the post-war era--1946 to, say, 1964--and in many ways it was an absolute Golden Age. Not perfect; no era is. It's stupid to romanticize a period, but equally stupid to dismiss it for its failure to be as Perfect and Glorious and Wise as our enlightened time. It's easy to snicker at their fear of Communism, but in context I'd be scared too--the USSR was a heavily armed, expansionist totalitarian state, and its domestic apologists were not only wrong, but defending a system that equaled and bested the Nazis for prolonged brutality.

The '50s are sniffed at, I think, because the victors write the history, and in the cultural battles fought by the boomers, the '50s were the era of Mom and Dad, the era of rules, the era of oppression. To the boomers, the '60s are the Years of Glory, because that's when they got to go to college, live in dorms, stay out late and come home blitzed on ditchweed without answering a lot of questions. Being Boomers, they elevated this period to mythic status, and hence we've had to live with this incessant '60s worship ever since. Personally, I'm sick of it; I'm sick of their music, their fashions, their politics, their interminable self-satisfaction and narcissistic desire to regard their generation as the apogee of human endeavor. Yawn. It's been such a stultifying weight on society that we can't seem to come up with anything new--hence this never-ending cycle of nostalgia we're in. We must worship the '60s, be amused by the '70s, and loathe the '80s. Why loathe? Because that's when the boomers first started to feel out of touch, i.e., old.

These are all horrible overgeneralizations. That's the problem. Each era gets boiled down to a few pat symbols. The '50s are sock hops and tail fins. The '60s are protest and Woodstock. The '70s are shag and disco balls. The '80s mean greed and Izod. The '90s--well, who knows. It's all ridiculous; every era is much more than that, and at the same time no different than our own. People eat, work, raise kids, laugh, snore, worry about whether the sofa should go in that corner or over there.

All that said, I have only two points: I love living now, and wouldn't change this time for any other. Point #2: were it a choice between driving a minivan down a vacant suburb strip mall corridor eating a franchise hamburger and listening to some "Big Pimpin'" on the CD player, OR driving a turquoise BelAir around downtown Philly listening to Joe Niagara introduce Chuck Berry tunes on the AM radio--

Not even close.

You rightly point out that we laugh at the past with the benefit of revisionist distance and that our modern ingredients--NutraSweet, Olestra, and so on--are just as obscene as bacon milkshakes. In thirty to fifty years, what would a future Gallery of Regrettable Food include from this era? Please include wheatgrass smoothies; I think they're sickening.

Pre-made lobster ravioli, perhaps, and other "delicate" dishes that cannot be bothered to provide actual flavor. To tell you the truth, I can't come up with many examples--perhaps because I'm hungry right now, and everything looks good. Maybe that's the secret of these old cookbooks--starve everyone in the family, and they'll accept anything.

I know that you collect old cookbooks. How big is your collection? What does it include?

A hundred, hundred and fifty or so. I don't know--they're in bins in the basement, kept out of sight. After I did the big expanded version of the site, people started sending me books, and now I've more than enough for two sequels. Horrible stuff, too. At some point it all starts to look the same; another book, another garish slab of Thyroid Lasagna. The books that interest me now are the ones that have peculiar tableaus of people cooking, grilling, or waving bananas without regard to their symbolic potential.

Of all the ads, which is your favorite? The worst?

Answer to both: the Sack O' Sauce in a Can O' Meat. It's just that—a bladder of sauce embedded in a can of ravaged cow; it was recently featured in Maxim magazine as something that looks pornographic even though it isn't. Through research and tireless searches I've also found its mate, the Sack O' Mustard in the Can O' Meat. They were really impressed with themselves for that one.

Let's talk about your hilarious website, which is amazingly exhaustive as it is stylishly designed. You write, design, and regularly update it, all while holding down jobs as a newspaper columnist and as a family man. How do you do it?

Well, obviously by ignoring my jobs and responsibilities, eh? Actually, I wrote most of the site before Baby came along; in the first few months I would scan while I tended her, and since she just laid on the floor and played with toys, I could scan and write and lay out pages as I pleased. Now she's mobile, and the time I have to work has been cut--but I work fast, and probably save hours by not even bothering to spellchekc. I should also note that the pages on the site now conform to a template, which I can reuse from area to area with only a few tweaks.

The Institute of Official Cheer, which is the "humorous" portion of the site, isn't the largest; the architecture site is about twice the size. Sometimes when people find that part, they just weep and go away--too much.

Do you plan to expand any other sections on the site into books? Are you working on anything now?

Yes. "Interior Desecrators," devoted to my burning hatred of the '70s.

I notice that a lot of your work focuses on food. Do you cook? After all, there's nothing wrong with a man who cooks, especially if he grills!

It's odd how much food-related stuff I've done; I used to be a food critic for one of the local alternative papers. I had the palate of an asbestos glove, too. My first two novels had a food critic as their hero. And now the GoRF. But I'm not a "foodie," a term that gives me hives. I do all the cooking around here, but only because my wife is busy.

And I have to know: have you tried any of these recipes? Would you try any of them? (That sounds vaguely Green Eggs and Ham.)

I would not try them on my plate. I would not give them to my mate. I would not eat them anywhere. I would not eat them on a dare.


-- interview by Kelley Kawano

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