While Pashman seemed more inclined to use the recipes to understand divisions in class cultures, Lehrer stuck with the always crowd-pleasing “Ew, I can’t believe people EAT that” line. He declared himself disgusted equally by the every-day and the high-brow in American foodways: “I don’t know what makes me cringe more, to be completely frank about it, the condensed cream of mushroom soup casserole or the snooty foodies.” The show, however, was tellingly dedicated to getting listeners to call in with their “guilty pleasures,” which he identified as “old time” or “from Allrecipes” or including processed ingredients. Lehrer didn’t ask anyone to call in to talk about the foie gras-stuffed tomato dish from Saveur that he mentioned early in the show. “Snooty foodies” were not his real target.
The game was to laugh at people for enjoying dishes that Pashman identified as “straight out of 1955.” In this spirit, they laughed along with a woman who “confessed” that pot roast made with onion soup and cranberry sauce is actually “really good,” though she would be ashamed to tell her family the ingredients.
Apart from the pointlessness (and classism?) of deriding what lots of people like to eat, the segment seemed really out-of-date to me, and not just because I have traced American food-bashing of this type back to the 1930s*, but because Lehrer seemed unaware of the liberating effect irony has had on cultural critique. The irony that embedded itself in popular culture in the 1990s enabled new levels of appreciation beyond the simple cool/uncool dichotomy born in the postwar era. This is not to say that people who make meatloaf with ketchup on top (and who doesn’t? ) only like it ironically, but that irony relaxed the borders that had been policed for most of the 20th century in food cultures. Loving velveta ironically led easily to loving it honestly, or maybe both at the same time. In a world in which lobster mac ‘n’ cheese is already old news as high-low culture, the segment sounded stale as a day old donut. But it did make me curious about the use of irony in food writing, so that’s, as Martha Stewart says, “a good thing.” Martha, by the way, makes her meatloaf with a mixture of mustard and ketchup on top. It’s unsurprisingly delicious.
* My history of American cookbooks is forthcoming from Penn Press in Spring 2017. Title tbd.