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Friday, February 14, 2003
The Ingredients of Madness
On Dec. 26 I wrote about Kitchen Kitsch, a book of old food illustrations, some of them regrettable, many of them interesting or beautiful. That was the one with the Meat Sermon.
Well, also in that book was the cover of this cookbook, a freebie given out by Metropolitan Life. You can't tell even from the larger image, but the white squares hold cartoons of smiling, anthropomorphic foodstuffs.
My mother had this cookbook when I was a small child, and it terrified me.
When I saw the illustration in Kitchen Kitsch, I was moved to ask my Mom about the Met Life cookbook, and the other day she sent it to me. I can't be absolutely sure it's the same book, because the cover's off, and nowhwere does it give the title. But there are the same smiling, frightening cartoons within.
I wish I could show the illustrations, but I can't post them here. The food --- cakes and chops and roasts etc --- are all drawn with little stick arms and legs and smiley faces and little eyes. So if you are three or four years old, as I was, and you see that, you think that the little foods are alive. They're alive and they're going to be eaten.
One picture has some sort of bread rolls popping out of a muffin pan. Some of the rolls are very tall, indicating that they've been allowed to rise too much. These all have alarmed looks on their faces. The remaining, properly leavened one is smiling brightly. But the too-tall ones are very tall---like about a foot tall. I remember that I thought of them as ghosts. Or worms. The ghosts of anthropomorphic worms, and they're vaguely alarmed about something. What is it? Should I be alarmed too!?
(Today, they just look rather phallic. Ho hum.)
On one page is a strange creature that to this day I can't identify. It looks like a happy fish lifting its head off, about to enjoy an appetizer spread that will no doubt include its own body. Horrible.
Here are the lamb chop savages, wearing their paper panties on their heads and triumphantly waving their parsley sprigs in the air as they drag behind them a rather sozzled-looking rump roast, still smoking. Little do they know that their appeasement of the Carnivore Gods will not save them from the same fate!
Look at the love-sick lettuce making googly-eyes at the lusty tomato. Don't do it, honey! Don't let him look at you without your dressing. Lettuces always get their hearts shredded by les pommes d'amour. He'll only spill his seed over some other little tomato.
And finally, a cake surrounded by cheery little cupcakes. It's holding hands with two of them. See their happy smiles as they dance back and forth, leaping over the cake. But the cake is not happy. The cake looks stricken. What does the cake know? Does it know that the party hour is nigh??
I'm quite serious. I had a...uh...rich inner life as a child, and I would make up intricate stories about things far less human than these cartoons. I worked out elaborate relationships between the numbers 1-12. You know, 9 was female and she was always mad at 8, which was a man, but I think she was married to 10. These numeric soap operas distracted me when I was trying to work math problems.
Today, Lileks squirms at having to explain the cigs, booze, and violence in old Disney cartoons. Bless him. My parents generally answered those awkward questions with "I don't know" or "Will you shut the hell up?" That's when parents were parents.
But it didn't matter. I always assumed anything I didn't understand belonged in the shadowy territory of grown-ups---things I might understand when I was older, if I cared enough, which I probably wouldn't. Adults were inexplicable beings who operated on principles outside my comprehension, and I didn't let that trouble me. I'm always surprised at people who get bent out of shape because their children once saw something that sort of suggested something that might somehow be naughty. To my young mind, these things were as ubiquitous and unknowable as the sun and the wind, and far less interesting. It was only the embarrassed laughter or shocked reactions of the adults which clued me in.
On the other hand, as we sat in the living room and watched Red Skelton, which had its occasional inexplicable (i.e. adult) moments, I was aware that behind us in the kitchen lurked the innocent cookbook with the human worm ghosts and the traitorous lamb chops and the worried cake. What does the cake know?