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Monday, December 18

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Two Chicago writers find unintentional time capsules in unexpected places, collections that exude both banality and insight into a different time and place in America. Each is compelled to go through the entire collection, choosing what ultimately would become the basis of a book. And although the end results are radically different in tone and personality, the books have a clear kinship. You could almost imagine them being two stories on an episode of This American Life, themed something like "Life-Changing Finds."

LaPorte, Indiana

by Jason Bitner, with forward by Alex Kotlowitz

Awhile back, Jason Bitner, one of the co-founders of Found Magazine, drove from Chicago to LaPorte, Indiana, to watch the demolition derby at the LaPorte County Fair. He and his friends stopped into a diner for a bite to eat, and Bitner's eye caught on a couple of old portraits taped to the pie case. He asked the waitress about them, and she showed him to a room in the back of the restaurant, where 18,000 portraits from the defunct Muralcraft photography studio, which used to be upstairs. Bitner started flipping through the pictures, fascinated, and soon decided to spend a week looking at every single photo in the collection, selecting the fraction that would find their way into a book.

The cover of LaPorte, Indiana has the textured feel of an old photograph. A quartet of details from black-and-white photos prepares you for the treasure within. After a brief forward by Alex Kotlowitz and a short description from Bitner of the town of LaPorte and how he came across the photos, there are precious few words until you reach the back cover. Only the occasional transcription of notes from the back of a photo interrupts the litany of faces.

Through the book, you're transported to small town America in the mid-Twentieth Century. Big hair, skinny ties, pearls and cat's eye glasses. Despite the staid and timeless studio poses, you can date each photo through these little details and the hairstyles, from the big perms of the Fifties to the relaxed straight tresses of the late Sixties.

Bitner notes in his introduction that the photos are carefully arranged so as to highlight themes and similarities. As you flip through the book, the groupings arise subtly — glasses, men and women in profile, siblings — and the commonalities of these staged pictures come to the forefront. I find myself returning over and over again to a spread showing two men in suits, each with a flat-top haircut, thick black-rimmed glasses on a slightly nobby nose, and a mild smile; the biggest difference between the pair is that one happens to be black, the other white, but their similarities almost lead you to believe they're related.

LaPorte, Indiana could very easily have been all about mocking the yokels — there are a couple pretty goofy looking folks in there — but Bitner's commentary-less presentation avoids all that and instead provides a venue for us to examine these people without irony or judgment. It's a wonderful document of a place and time not so far removed from where we are now.

The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan
Classic Diet Recipe Cards from the 1970s

by Wendy McClure

Whereas LaPorte, Indiana allows the reader to make his or her own judgments of the photos, The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan puts the judgments right out front. Each hideous looking recipe is accompanied by snarky commentary from author Wendy McClure. And while I'm sure we could come up with our own punchlines, they probably wouldn't be too different — or any funnier — than what McClure provides.

McClure came across a plastic file box of Weight Watchers recipe cards from 1974 while helping her parents clean out their basement. Flipping through the cards, she found herself increasingly amused and alarmed at the bizarre dishes. Dishes with names like "Inspiration Soup" and "Fluffy Mackerel Pudding." She laughed so hard she fell over, and begged her mother to give her the cards. She posted a selection of the worst on her blog and they quickly became an Internet sensation, bringing in so much traffic that she ended up moving them to another domain. They played a pivotal role in her weight-loss memoir, I'm Not the New Me, and between their Internet popularity and the success of the memoir, it was clear the cards needed a book of their own.

The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan includes all the Internet-posted cards and dozens more, organized as you'd find in a cookbook: "Soups, Salad, Snacks, Sorrow;" "Sauces, Light Meals, Lunches, Loathing;" "Main Dish Malevolence." We're introduced to such delights as "Frozen Cheese Salad" and "Aspic-Glazed Lamb Loaf," reprinted on the page in all their poorly printed glory. Garish and often inexplicable Seventies decor surrounds the dishes, perhaps drawing your attention away from just how awful that "Chilled Celery Log" or "Bean and Mushroom Salad" looks.

Although for copyright reasons the recipes on the backs of the cards aren't included, we can guess at some of the ingredients from the photos. There's an incredible amount of pimiento in play, and both aspic and sauerkraut play important roles, though thankfully not in the same dishes as far as I could tell. In some cases McClure reveals ingredients in her biting commentary — I would have never guessed that "Snacks on a Stick" was just frozen coffee popsicles if she didn't say so, or that the "Fish Jambalaya" was served on a bed of boiled celery instead of rice (shudder).

It's nice to know that Weight Watchers has enough of a sense of humor to allow McClure to reprint these culinary monstrosities. There's something to be said about a company that can laugh at its own mistakes. The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan is a great gift for an aspiring dieter, the perfect reminder of just how bad that food could have been.

 

About the Author(s)

Andrew Huff is editor and co-founder of Gapers Block.

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