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American Advertising Cookbooks and Our Sons of Bitches

“Pretty soon you’ll be thinking like the adverts… things could be worse.”

– TV Smith

Christina Ward’s tasty new survey, American Advertising Cookbooks looks at our past-peculiar landscape of cornbeef and carnage with a microscope worthy of Hitchcock and Pasteur. These recipe pamphlets were the product of Madison Ave and industry PSYOPS, and in wild Technicolor, they enforced a rigid unreality on almost four decades of cooking in the form of processed tucker and synthetic substitutes. Reproduced here in all their brilliance, they are the true successor to the American trompe-l’œil still-life à la William Harnett etc. Cranapple mousse and Jell-O rather than a skinned rabbit over a musket; the making of a leisurely bloodthirst in calories, carbines… If all cookbooks are also travelogues, then here we are closest to Los Alamos, Pompeii, and Barsoom.

The cultishnes of American cuisine is like her crank religions, salting a Puritan Ghostly with dreams of endless expanse. Despite their initial starving ineptitude, our colonists did manage finally to stitch-up a series of regional cuisines, mixing Germanic comfort with Gold Rush improv and pure necessity. Every now and then, American cookery came up true grits – thanks to early sorceresses like Amelia Simmons and her epochal 1796 work, American Cookery, which leaned heavy on the cakes. Period Virginia cookbooks resembled those oddly beautiful colonial quilts – stolen African spices, Native economic genius, offerings to the dead by an audience of open mouths. And there was also a regional degree of decentralized health-consciousness, part 1848 socialist and part Muscular Christian, where Amish restraint met Poe’s perfect room in fin-de-siècle culinary. After this searching (and Searchers) phase of American national cooking, the opposing forces of Protestantism and Excess finally found a unified front in the holy burden of war rationing. Hegemony belonged to the infamous Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew and the Cagliostro of stateside advertising. Bernays worked for General Foods, Phillip Morris, and for Alan Dulles (twice). With Dr. Bernays and the new food industry, the blood-mayonnaise meridian looked backward to William Walker and anticipated Augusto Pinochet, heavy as sugar over hog-wrapped bananas and twice as grating. From the microwave to Hiroshima, from frontier cannibalism to The Jungle, the American grain is ever split and eats first of itself.

The cookbooks produced by 20thCentury food corporations simultaneously pushed health and bourgeois decadence in folksy Americanese cured with jet propulsion. Industry admen turned the old labor-time of cooking into a garrulous display of pre-dinner infinities. The missus’ appliances and molds at least implied aspiration, as well as that Armourican Can-Do attitude. Behind the cans were habits: shell-shocked youth looking for tinned rations that recalled Verdun or venereal disease; sweets as addictive as the Doc’s hypo; instantaneous joys from the atomic pan. Wartime rationing had also brought back the old mythology of hard-working abstemiousness in powdered instant mash and milk, fruit cocktail and Minute Rice. And it created new recognizable archetypes drawn from that deeply personalrelationship Bernays’ psychiatrists detected between Americans and their goods. For Austrian School cranks like Freidrich Hayek, these preferences were psychic signals sent to large firms from a rabble that craved intimacy with shelf-life and its fictitious uncles. A lazy Mexican slouching in a sombrero, or a yesmassa servant looking in rapture over a sunny exec pimento-loafing with waif and pipe and wide-open NYT… it was as if the products themselves radiated from these weird servant-friends. Intermediary spirits in the séance of Hostess freedomland, such familiar faces were a substitute for Abstract Expressionism if you were a jive-ass, or for ‘fusion’ cuisine if you feared real miscegenation in wok or womb.

Fad diets are still the stuff of gurus for hire, a soft counterinsurgency aimed at people’s better older instincts and the poor. ‘Health’ has become a ghastly wellness in the face of the great theft from those who hunger and are not fed – not a way of life at all, as someone once said. And like the SEC, commercial food has always maintained a public-private revolving door, one of many things it shares with military brass and urban development. There is still room for the old myths, though. In red harvests of candied fruit and IMF loans, the manifest demons of the great grub cartels even lie with Fallen Man: Chiquita was made flesh as Carmen Miranda, then reborn again as a brand to cover the imperialist crimes of United Fruit, Bernays Xx, CIA. Here is the last temptation of Cotton Mather.

It’s a common mistake to think the great Vance Packard meant his Hidden Persuaders were a series of sexy ‘triggers’ imbedded in ads pushing toothpaste or Velveeta on a passive public – see the erections on Camel camels, tits deep in frothy beer, wealth and jailbait under a Chrysler one-sheet. Both Packard and Ms. Ward refer to the martial advertising forces literally behind the products and the promos. Hence the corporate-sponsored ‘discipline’ of Home Economics, a ghostly epistemology headed by Betty Crocker and Uncle Ben, grinning and coy loci that hid General Foods, Dole, Proctor & Gamble, the FDA, and the Council on Public Relations (Bernays again!). Economics means the orderof the home – but for Food Inc., Home Ec was deregulation via corporate sponsorship and those same junk ‘studies’ that now epitomize Big Pharma’s opioid crush. The daffy glue-and-mince casseroles signaled the first appearance of new public sustenance ‘experts’, corporatized fakirs hired to sell the cardiac arrest as collateral damage on the homefront of consumer vigorousness. Fox News’ pundits really bear little resemblance to Billy Sunday or Savonarola, but they have much in common with these bodiless nutrition czars at public information cut-outs that concealed Hormel, Kellogg, and Libby’s. It would be curious to compare them – and perhaps even their personnel – with the simultaneous apparition of cranky rightist thinktanks like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the Kochs’.

The express insanity of the best of these cookbooks shows devious and even witty minds at work – there is no question. After all, freelance psychologists ran the modern advertising biz by jamming together Thanatos and the Pleasure principle and calling it lifestyle or self-expression. There is also the question of a morphology of the fetish: the branded spooks move in a clear evolutionary line, sloughing off their more racist attributes with changing liberal trends or the paranoia of Yanqui punning matrices (Ho ho hos, missed a ho chi minh again?). Case in point: LaChoy was co-founded by Mr. Ilhan New (born in Pyongyang; associated wartime with Dulles’ OSS – LaChoy, c’est Indochine??), but his ‘Oriental’ noodle-soy-gum in a can took a hit during the Internment Camp era (and probably also during Reagan’s duplicitous Japan bashing). The wily Chinee on the mass-produced Chop Suey can was shown not clever but cretinous, like the pudgy Italian chef or the ditzy Secretary, offing a reassuring Fu Manfruitcake who eat much jolly and grinned like a balloon about to pop. And then there’s the ‘60s attempt to package prole suds for a decidedly bourgeois strata: the debacle of trying to get lawyers to ask for a Schlitz was as successful as the cry of Heil Schicklgruber! would have been in Munich ‘33. However, the distance between Krupp and craft brewing is finally closing. Try, try again, as the Clinton corps might say.

American Corporate Cookbooks is a stranger-companion to Ms. Ward’s previous book, Preservation. Here, adaptation and manipulation are seen from the other side – or rather from a sardonic sidereal point, with gonzo gastro-political detective work and a brainy knack for montage. She shows a hypnotically dark manifestation of our crudest input-output controls, while her writing makes busting the Case of the Wife-Swapping Conglomerates look almost easy, like the best books always do (Ready in minutes!). On the banana – to use her unforgettable adjective, a ‘eunuch’ – bound to clipping parthenogenesis and genetic engineering, she is especially enlightening. Scourge of Michael Manley and the South and Central Americas, this yellow fasces becomes a cancer in the economic host of any land it is found (or rather, where it was planted by US colonial interests). The United Fruit Co. is the origin of the term ‘Banana Republic’, the euphemism for the classic tropical despotism that bleeds its own people to fuel the Washington Consensus. Bananas, poor hybrid berries, are a biological black hole in every way, the truest expression of the corporate loathing for planned economies abroad and abject felicity to them when it comes to Papa Monsanto. Nevertheless, like all poisons, the banana also makes healthy. It is both an excellent anti-oxidant and a festering plague, a dialectical androgyny glimpsed throughout Ms. Ward’s book in green hell aspic yet also thanked in the afterward for preserving life. Bananas don’t kill people, the Chicago Boys do.

It is not all the inedible chasing the lonely cannibal. Occasionally, works of genius appear in the mad platter, such as the sauerkraut chocolate cake – a far older product of communal Wisconsin which operates at opposites like a pair of pliers, working magic in the gut and on the tongue. The noble Laura Scudder made a mint with her food, kept her employees on thorough the Depression (by expanding into peanut butter), and refused to sell her successful company unless Signal Oil & Gas kept her employees on with a good wage and benefits. And some amusing details arise: Rabbinical councils are still debating whether Crisco is actually a food (Maimonides might have approved of the apophatic overtone of the question), after a particularly euphoric ad campaign wherein a ‘rabbi’ declared that this insipid lard was comparable to the Messiah. Napoleon III is responsible for margarine – a barb Marx missed in the 18thBrumaire. As for Bernays, he lived to be 103. See Kate Smith standing ominously in front of a table of rainbow gelatins, a scene that must have inspired Ira Levin for decades. Other alien spreads are laid out sometimes like an Isfahan shrine, sometimes like Petri dishes at Unit 731… Yet the longer you look at these illustrations, a kind of aesthetic uncertainty takes over which produces both repulsion and awe in equal proportions. A modern grotesque? Saturnalia à la Masoch? How else to account for ‘Fluffo’, Cucumber Relish Rings, Pressed Veal Loaf, Gingered Pear and Chicken Salad, Deviled Ham and Pineapple sandwiches? Hotdogs floating in greasy boiled vegetal mush, ‘sparkle meals’ (!?!), the cover of the Antisocial Cookbook which mimicked the Anarchist one? When I hear the word culture, I reach for Super Strength Alcoa Wrap.

Ms Ward is a Rabelaisian satirist of the first order. She has translated the odd messages inscribed in the corporate tract, summoning Uncle Freud and his nephew by exploring a decidedly material consciousness whose monuments are as subtle as they are minced, forced and chopped. And Corporate Cookbooks comes out just in time for yet another coup, this time in Venezuela, which shows that Emperor Tomato Catsup and P.I.G. are not mere regurgitations but prophecy at farce degree 500. Perhaps the fear of Carbs is really the fear of Caribs? Rabelais had Gargamelle give birth to her monstrous son via a confusion of orifices, after a particularly mad feast in a singularly mad kingdom. And here we are.

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Martin Billheimer lives in Chicago.

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