A lot of these horrible retro cookbooks (or cook books, as they're often listed) appear to have been designed and laid out with considerable help from the Inexplicable Props Department. This isn't just the Seventies' fault, either: with the widespread introduction of microwave ovens in the 1980s, a new strain of awful food photography came to light in the genre of How To Use Your New Microwave guidebooks, with emphasis on the bizarre.
I present to you Microwave Miracles from Sears, circa 1981. There aren't any pictures of the actual miraculous microwave, but it's a pretty safe bet to imagine something the size of an industrial transformer in tasteful shades of black and brown wood-grain. (I have to admit, here, that I own a 1986 JC Penney microwave/convection oven which is still going strong, despite being old enough to buy its own booze. Microwave magnetrons don't really wear out.)
Apparently one of the things 1981 Sears microwave ovens did was to make everything very brightly colored, and to accent this brilliance the book's designer called in the full force of the Inexplicable Props. For example, Eye of Sauron Pea Soup is accompanied by giant salt-and-pepper shakers designed to resemble faceless banisters carved of jade, and posed against a backdrop of floating lime-green mushrooms. Monolith of Meat is posed with a disturbingly tiny stemmed dish of what is presumably either horseradish or whipped lard, and watched over by a distant, silent, silver cow-god idol.
Kebabs on Bleached Rice, accompanied by Banana Slugs in Spinach, are watched over by a pair of onion-shaped albino alien beings. Also note the cutlery handles, which appear to be ceramic puffins that have been stretched longitudinally. Stir-fried Worms are also guarded by two white aliens, cleverly disguised as little pottery pagodas, and served in an orange-red limbo in front of openwork screens designed to throw the shadow of the Cross on all they survey.
More unpleasantly, Jellied Emesis--also on bleached rice--is served with your choice of shredded coconut, yellow lima beans, or something brown and sticky which could be a chutney of some kind, and posed with a couple of artifacts stolen from the Vaguely Moroccan Or Something wing of the local museum. But none of these are quite as inexplicable as Turkey with Vinyl Sauce served as an offering to a miniature cast-iron coal-fired range. It's an adorable if somewhat disturbing miniature cast-iron coal-fired range and I want it (it comes with pans! And a coal-scuttle!), but what it has to do with bland slices of turkey breast served with broccoli I cannot fathom. I think at this point the art director was giggling madly and grabbing for any object he or she could find to pose with dishes. Dollhouse appliances? Great! Laboratory glassware? Bring it on! Dollar-store kitch? Beautiful!
Moving on, we come to Dismembered Fish stuffed with stuff and topped with bacon, accompanied with whipped lard and rabbit droppings, and posed with dead grass and a wood-and-metal fish sculpture gazing in frozen horror at something offcamera to the left. Note that the fish sculpture, unlike the fish entrée, still has its head attached.
Next up is Glistening Almond-Strewn Tripe, apparently served on the Mary Celeste. Technically this dish is "Filet of Sole Almondine," but I've also been advised that it could be a casserole full of Vinyl Sauce Puddles as seen on the turkey served with dollhouse kitchen appliances. Just arrange your foodstuffs on a plate and drape one of these over it and bang, you have a real classy presentation. See, for example, Mount St. Cholesterol, balanced atop eggs in a carton and regarded with disdain by a blue cock. The substance drizzled over this dish could easily be taken from the casserole-of-vinyl-glop.
In the 1980s, any decent housewife would take pride in her culinary skill and in the style with which she served guests and family. Crocheted Spaghetti is one of those dishes by which you can measure a chef's capability; the strands of albino pasta had to be woven just so on the serving fork, echoed in place settings by the melted Chianti bottles stuffed with broomstraw. If you got the pattern of pasta on your fork wrong, the whole neighborhood would know you weren't a good wife and mother.
Desserts were important too. Brownie with Melted Crayon, Yellow-Flavored Yellow Cake with Yellow Filling, and Baked Insulation topped with Whipped Cream had to be watched over by a belligerent pewter swan; really classy cooks would garnish the swan with plastic roses in a hue exactly matching the desserts.
Sometimes you had to serve meals outdoors against a weathered shingle wall, and when this was the case your standard beige vinyl sauce wasn't up to the task of presentation: you had to slather stage blood atop the vinyl sauce if you wanted your Pan-Fried Insoles to look their best. Serve with iced tea in a volumetric flask and breaded rebar pieces in a decorative bucket.
Finally, we come to Glistening Stew. The secret ingredient in this recipe is multiple coatings of polyurethane varnish. A properly prepared Glistening Stew will not move even if the pot is turned upside down and shaken. This example is served with salt and pepper shakers in an elegant blue-pattern porcelain, but the really interesting aspect of the presentation is the porcelain plate behind the stew pot, which appears to be staring in abject horror at the dish. Get me out of here, it's begging. For the love of God.
This concludes today's edition of Inexplicable Props and Yellow Glop. Stay tuned for Ways with Ham.