I was going through my cookbooks looking for inspiration recently and came across my copy of Elsa Michaels's The Vegetarian Menu Cookbook from 1973. I flipped it open and this is the first thing I saw:
Any recipe that starts with a "1 styrofoam disc, 2 inches thick" is a recipe for me, and I began to breathlessly page through the book. In the introduction, Elsa writes, "I have found over the years that many people can produce a vegetarian dish, but there are few who have the knowledge or experience to plan a meal that is nutritionally well balanced as well as being attractive and palatable." Attractive and palatable is practically my nickname! Let's take a look inside!
To be fair, it's not just old vegetarian cookbooks that feature shocking food photos like this sad, brown, thumbless mitten resting on a bed of rabies foam surrounded by bowls of old blood. If aliens came to Earth and tried to judge our culture based on our books then they're going to conclude that before 1985 people on this planet were at war with some of the ugliest monsters ever to crawl out of the sea and the only way to defeat them was to put them on plates and eat them, then memorialize the destruction of the most gruesome amongst them in our "cookery books."
But it's also easy to understand why people used to make fun of vegetarians so much when vegetarian cookbooks were offering up menus like this one:
Hey, kids! Who wants some egg mold? And is there a dish in the history of the world that sounds more like a schoolyard insult than "nut dumpling?" But it's not just the names of the dishes, it's the willful way in which the photographs of the food break all the rules. You think food photos should be beautiful and appetizing? You think they should make you want to actually eat the food? Well, we're thinking outside the box here. We're taking some of the most gratuitously gruesome food photos ever snapped. Take this!
This is resignation to the
grim fact that life is meaningless and
full of disappointment
served on a plate with parsley.
Can you imagine laboring in the kitchen
all day to produce this massive, intricate meal
that centers on one sad, wrinkled eggplant?
Just looking at that eggplant makes me depressed.
It's like the Eeyore of eggplants.
Some of the menus are almost impossible to understand. Like this one:
I see a bowl splattered with some mysterious red paste, some fried logs, a gravy boat of ranch dressing and a pile of carved radishes. Where are the cottage cheese burgers? The green pepper sauce? The orange beets or the lemon finale with strawberry sauce?
Even with the guide, mysteries still exist. Lower-right-hand corner: what is that? It looks like what you find after Chef Boyardee tries to cross the road and gets hit by a Mack truck.
To be fair, some of the dishes look totally normal given the times:
You've got to love the nerves of steel required to write a recipe that calls for "1 pound marshmallows" and "1 cup double-strength coffee" right at the top. That's one way to get the weak-willed chefs without the intestinal fortitude required to execute these recipes out of the pool immediately. For me, personally, this recipe actually looks kind of awesome in an X-treme cooking kind of way. Expect to see double-strength coffee marshmallows on the Dirt Candy menu at some point in the future.
You know, I don't want to make too much fun of Elsa Michaels. This cookbook has given me an afternoon of joy and that's more than I can say for a lot of other cookbooks I've read. Also, she's a fascinating lady. She started cooking vegetarian because her husband, Leonard Michaels, was a committed vegetarian (he even writes a forward to her book) and she suddenly found herself having to host vegetarian dinner parties for friends and his work colleagues. She got herself enrolled in some nutrition courses, earned some degrees and started going to town on these dishes. What makes the story extraordinary is that Leonard Michaels, her husband, was an architect who designed several synagogues and public buildings in San Mateo, CA. But he gets a badge of Super-Cool because he was in the British Navy (ship sunk by German U-boats) and worked for the awesomely-named Ultra Intelligence Unit. What was so "ultra" about it? He was one of only three intelligence officers who received information from Bletchley Park (aka Station X), where the German Enigma code was deciphered. I like to imagine him swimming for rescue after his ship was torpedoed while dreaming of nut dumplings. Or taking a pause from destroying classified documents and leaning back in his chair to relish the thought of the cottage cheese burgers waiting for him at home. (read more about him)
So, for all the making fun of old school 70's vegetarian cooking, I have to tip my non-existent hat to Elsa Michaels for busting out a big, hardback, photo-filled vegetarian cookbook based on she and her husband's personal conviction that being vegetarian was the only way to be back in the 70's when pants were tighter, interior decorating was freaky and shag carpeting ran from wall-to-wall.