When I was a kid, my mother bought a cookbook called The Illustrated Encyclopedia of American Cooking. The book contained thousands of simple recipes, each involving no more than ten ingredients. There were black and white photos of select dishes scattered throughout the pages, but every 150 pages or so, there would be a section of full-page color photographs. I used to love flipping through the color pages, looking at each dish and imagining what it was supposed to taste like.
I probably didn’t find every photograph to be mouth-watering but I did like most of it. I think that for the 1980s, it was decent food photography, even if some of the photos looked like they might have come out of the 70s or even earlier. I was also a kid, so I really didn’t know much about anything. As years passed I would occasionally pick up the book and flip through it, and over time I found the photos to be less and less appealing. The plating, styling, and use of ingredients looked dated, and the textures of the finished products made the food look wholly unappetizing. It was no longer food porn for me.
A few weeks ago I stumbled upon a hysterical website called The Gallery of Regrettable Food. The creator of the site, James Lileks, is an American journalist who has written several books on the comically bad side to life in decades past. In the gallery, he compiles small collections of food photography culled from cookbooks, magazines, and advertisements from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, and adds his own commentary. Each photo has a backstory invented by Lileks, giving you a full picture of the zany people (many of them clearly alcoholics) from bygone years who would have cooked and served food in such horrible ways to their equally horrible friends and neighbors. When I first found the site, I went through every single photo in one sitting and laughed the whole way through. The photos reminded me so much of the cookbook photos from my childhood, but with a modern day view of how awful they look, perfectly articulated with humor.
This trip down bad food photography memory lane has got me wondering if the photos we see now that look so yummy and well staged will look downright disgusting and inedible in another forty years time. Or was that a trait unique to the era that Lileks focuses on? My hope is that photos from today won’t appear this bad. Here are some of my favorites from his collection: