Wednesday, July 05, 2006


By Cornelia

Henry Miller once wrote, ``my people were entirely Nordic, which is to say idiots ." I concur fully, if only in the culinary arena.

Your average WASP can boil, overcook, underseason and otherwise torture and mutilate even the most sublime of foodstuffs (from filet mignon to beefsteak tomatoes fresh from the garden) such that they become merely a series of identical, flavor-free, stucco-colored porridges.

What's more, he or she can do this while blindfolded and with a gin and tonic in each hand.

I have long subscribed to the theory that the global Manifest Destiny delusion of the Anglo-Saxon peoples was fueled by their lack of a ``soul food.'' Let's face it, every other culture has at least one dish which qualifies as a tribal identifier-- some exquisite preparation which proclaims a group's unity, tradition, and talent. African-Americans have a panoply: ribs, hot links, magnificently rendered greens such as collards. The sobriquet soul food was justly coined to describe these flavorful contributions to the world's table.

Denizens of the Indian subcontinent have what Westerners mistakenly call "curries" (a corruption of a word describing a dish with gravy), and wondrous regional breads such as idlis, chuppatis, pooris, and naan.

The French have crusty baguettes, wines of great stature, cheeses, and many other offerings instantly recognizable as having a Gallic flair.

Italy is renowned for pasta, China for splendidly wokked preparations by the thousand, Japan for sushi and beyond,

Thailand for pad thai and satay, Korea for heady garlic-spiked mouth "happenings" (little wonder that they are referred to as "Garlic Eaters" by the Japanese, as all James Clavell fans know). Even the Swiss, God knows not the most eccentric people on the planet, have contributed fondue and raclette.

But whither the English, and by extension their culinary partners in crime, the Irish, Welsh, and Scottish? What ex-pat in full possession of his or her mental faculties could possibly yearn for haggis?

How did it happen that one of the only edible things in Eire is bread? Food historian Waverley Root did extensive books on the culinary histories of Italy and France, respectively, but it should come as no surprise that he penned no tertiary volume devoted to the evolution of Brit grub.

I staunchly believe this elemental lack to be what drove Britannia's people to the ends of the earth. The British East India Company, for instance, must credit its success to its every member's burning desire to seek out and find an edible meal, or at the very least to escape the pap masquerading as food back on ``this scepter'd isle, this England.''

Who could, after all, blame Shackleton for preferring roasted sled dog to the average pub lunch, or Sir Richard Burton for disguising himself as a native and journeying into the desert in order to get his hands on some half-decent hummous?

Sadly, this pitiful excuse for a cuisine is what has formed the backbone of American cooking. I hold the British palate, as filtered through the Puritan Ethic of self-denial, as squarely responsible for such travesties as Howard Johnson's, TV dinners, and Miracle Whip--to say nothing of the Mid-Western fantasy that Jell-O is a salad.

But the single greatest evil spawned by centuries of Anglo-Saxon ineptitude in the kitchen is Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup, which is to food what Reader's Digest Condensed Books are to literature. This quivering, beige, gelatinous mass has bludgeoned more food into a state of submissive Philboyd Studge-like slop than has the world production of SPAM and catsup combined.

After all, why should any self-respecting WASP try to master the intricacies of a bearnaise sauce, or even a bechamel, when just dumping a can of Campbell's in the pot, tureen, or casserole is so much easier? It's a broad spectrum appetite-o-cide which can be used with equal effectiveness to ruin stroganoff, tetrazzini, swedish meatballs, tuna, or innocent chicken breasts. If only it could be ladled over iceberg lettuce and topped with Chun King crunchy noodles, no other foodstuff would be required by the synchronized swimmers in my gene pool.

Little wonder, then, that Andy Warhol summed up the banality of our cultural ethos by rendering a Campbell's can (though I wonder why he chose tomato--must be that wacky bohemian thing).

If, as a nation, we want to raise the culinary bar, the greatest single action we could undertake would be to ban the manufacture, distribution, and sale of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup. Certainly, prohibition has historically given rise to black markets, smuggling, and dealings in unbonded goods, but handing the Mob carte blanche to develop an underground soup economy would divert them from hawking more fully toxic products, at the very least.

I urge you to join me in this worthy crusade by dumping any Cream of Mushroom you or a loved one might have directly down the kitchen sink (don't put your compost pile at risk...). When we build a grassroots groundswell, we can be more direct--grabbing up our hatchets like Carrie Nation and busting into the dens of banality still harboring this Satan's brew. Your children, and their children, will thank you.


  1. Did I hear someone else in the blogoshpere mention Jello salad? Well, it's not as bland as you think, Cornelia. I'm not too sure we're officially launched, but check out The Good Girls Kill for Money Club at Diana Killian's first post describes these stylish lady novelists and our mission to be taken more seriously than just any old "covered dishes."

    I blog tomorrow so be sure to check out who I like more than Cary Grant and what kind of salad I enjoyed in Monterosso, Italy. (Hint: It wasn't Jello).

    And Cornelia - how was Yosemite?

  2. Hi Heidi!

    Yosemite was great, and I even got to help catch a loose horse on the main street of Oakdale on the way home. I owe you an email... crazy day today, but a fun lunch with Paula Benson who was visiting Cali after Thrillerfest--we last met at Book Passage three years ago.

  3. Gotta agree, Cornelia. Campbell's cream of mushroom soup is essentially canned phlegm. But your photos have made me hungry. (not the bagged haggis). It's now time to head for Katsu-ya, here on Sushi Row in Studio City. In our neighborhood, there are about 15 sushi restaurants and only 1 English pub I'm aware of, perhaps proving your point, Cornelia.

  4. Maybe we can start Divine Secrets of the Katsu-Ya Sister-Brother-Hood, Paul?

    I am yearning for sushi here too.......

  5. Maybe we can start Divine Secrets of the Katsu-Ya Sister-Brother-Hood, Paul?

    I am yearning for sushi here too.......

  6. Canned phlegm? What, pray tell, would you call Habitant French-Canadian Pea Soup then?

    Or do you guys not have that? Clue on the colouring - not entirely dissimilar to the mustardy colour of baby poo.

  7. Stu and I still marvel at the time that one of his co-workers contributed "jello salad" as her "salad" contribution for the office potluck. I believe it had fruit cocktail in it (which is to fruit as cream of mushroom etc.) though I don't recall if marshmallows were involved.
    I come from a soul food culture. While we don't always eat healthy, Jews have many splendid tasting stuff - and yes, I DO like gefilte fish, but i do NOT ever ever expect anyone else to even try it. And not all Jewish food is tangy or stimulating, if you count Lindy's style cheesecake. Or noodle kugel (mine is the hugely bad for you dairy version, Stu's has fruit in it.) But oh mannnn, they're good.
    And I recall a conversation with soemone about "creamed onions" which strikes me as a particularly vile concoction - I hate those icky pearl onions, which are nothing like what onions should be - and oh yeah, do we think it was a WASP type who decided, what, to tone down the strong flavor by putting them there onions (gasp, onions!) in a bath of cream sauce? Dear gods. But the person I was talking with didn't comprehend my laughter; she was one of those whose families had that dish. NO ONE ATE IT but "you have to have it, it's tradition" which is about as stupid an idea as drinking Mogen David at a seder when you can find very decent kosher chardonnay out there.

  8. I'm a big fan of the gefilte, but I suspect it was because I got switched in the hospital before they first brought me home, post-natally. I even like Mogen David, but prefer Manischevitz if such is available.

    However, I'm definitely on Team "ach, KREPLACH!"

  9. I love gefilte fish! But I gotta have it with horseradish. Back in my dinky, hole-in-the-wall college, they always had a killer salad bar, fresh baked bread, huge wheels of cheese, and gefilte fish and matzoh. No one starved if you didn't like the veggie entree of the day, or the gray meat-like concoction.
    I was back there recently and soooo disappointed that they'd sold out to some contracted "food service" company. No more fresh bread and no gefilte to be had anywhere. Aaah, the good old days

  10. I like it. It makes everything such a soothing shade of gray. MMMMM!

    98% Irish

  11. But Ms. J, if you could have shrimp 'n' grits instead? With Firefly vodka on the side????

    We'd be fighting over Carrie's axe, I'm pretty sure.