Not For The| Faint of Heart

     I’ve covered some gruesome stories in my day, including the narcosatánicos in Matamoros, Mexico, a gang of serial killers led by a drug-dealing homosexual cannibal, and the mass suicide of 39 Heavens Gate computer programmers in Rancho Santa Fe, California, led by a child molester who had castrated himself and persuaded his cult that if they all killed themselves they would meet again on a spaceship behind the Comet Hale-Bopp. But I have never seen anything so horrifying as the 1953 edition of the “Better Homes and Garden Cookbook.”
     I’m not going to mess around. Here’s the recipe for Liver Sausage Pineapple: Add 1¼ cups of mayonnaise to a pound of liver sausage, throw in 2 teaspoons of gelatin and a bit of water, and pound the goddam thing into the shape of a pineapple. Cut diamond shapes in it to make it look like a brown fruit that was extruded from some animal’s liver, then stick a sliced green olive in the middle of each diamond and “Top with real pineapple top.”
     A picture of the wretched thing is on the cover page of the Appetizer section. Next to the vile creation are a bunch of Pretzel Pops. Want to hear the recipe? “Spear halved stuffed olive and lunchmeat with pretzel stick.” That’s it.
     Better Homes and Gardens was into spearing things with sticks back when I was a boy. The Main Ingredients to virtually all its appetizers are mayonnaise, olives, cream cheese and toothpicks.
     This appalling publication is a startling document – a glance through a cultural microscope.
     In the days after World War II, when America suddenly became the most affluent society in the history of the world, our middle classes had little or no tradition of decent cooking, outside of New Orleans and the Deep South.
     Emily Post was no help to a middle class wife who was expected to throw a patio party for the boys at the office, and maybe even the boss. Emily dealt with how the well-appointed wife should instruct her servants. Better Homes and Gardens offered pointers for women who had to prepare the food themselves.
     Here’s another one: “Wrap a half a slice of bacon around prunes stuffed with peanut butter. Fasten with cocktail pick and broil.”
     Apparently, this is what Americans actually ate as we consumed pitcher after pitcher of martinis, in the days when John Updike, Richard Yates and others turned their eyes upon us and began describing the lives we lived.
     Richard Yates is back in the news today, with Leo DeCaprio starring in a movie based on his 1961 book, “Revolutionary Road.” The book was nominated for a National Book Award in 1962, along with “Catch-22.” The next year, Valium became the first wonder drug in the Age of Anxiety.
     “Revolutionary Road” tells the story of a married couple who just don’t know what to do with themselves. Richard Yates was a realist, but to read his short stories today – “Eleven Kinds of Loneliness” is a good place to start – is to encounter a strange society. It’s a place where people in a tuberculosis sanitorium puff endless Camel cigarettes, because they “soothe the throat.” It’s a place where people will not say the word “cancer” out loud because it’s a dirty word. It’s a place of endless pitchers of martinis. No wonder. Look at what there was to eat.
     “Core center of dill pickle. Stuff with pimiento cream cheese.”
     “Moisten sieved cottage cheese with catsup. Form in tiny balls and roll in grated carrot.”
     “Stuff chilled cooked prunes with cream cheese and pineapple tidbits.”
     Then there’s the satanic Appetizer Pie. Please send the children out of the room. Then: Slice a round loaf of rye bread horizontally and spread it with mayonnaise. Arrange sardines in the center and surround them with caviar. Surround the caviar with stuffed olives and surround the olives with cheese spread mixed with mayonnaise. Then – I am not kidding about this – boil celery until it’s limp, marinate the celery in French dressing and bend it around the outside of the appetizer pie, like a … I don’t know, like some horrifying limp green condom. Then spoon egg onto any bare space left between the cheese and mayonnaise and the celery.
     I’m not trying to be a snob about this. I realize this was before the diabolical Pepsico invented Doritos and Cheetos and wads of other clotted chemicals that taste great and are far worse for us than Appetizer Pie. But the book makes a pretty clear statement about our country.
     The American people in those days were the most richly supplied with food of any people in the history of the world – and we didn’t have a clue what to do with it.
     Today, of course, things are different. For two generations now we have been the nation more richly supplied with money and military power than any other nation in the history of the world – and we don’t have a clue what to do with them either.

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