Before I begin, I will briefly note news from Britain, that Blackpool’s council has authorized the use of compulsory purchase (what Americans call “eminent domain”) to use the force of government to acquire land for the long-gestating Chariots of the Gods theme park to be operated by the company that now owns Erich von Däniken’s so-called “intellectual” property. Final permission to build the amusement park hasn’t happened yet, so the immersive Chariots entertainment experience is still years away. And now, on to more… well, I almost said “pleasant” thoughts, but that isn’t quite right.
Decades ago now, I stumbled across James Lileks’s Gallery of Regrettable Food and ever since have had a soft spot for the humor to be gained from the very worst of midcentury cuisine. A decade ago, I found a genuine 1950s cookbook sitting out for the garbage behind the apartment building where I then lived, and I kept it all these years because of the humor value in reading about its bizarre uses for bologna, mayonnaise, and butter. (On the plus side, it did also teach me the secret ingredients for Noodles Romanoff missing from bland modern recipes: A splash of Worcestershire sauce and a generous drizzle of a tomato-based or pepper-based liquid such as ketchup or Tabasco, depending on your spice preference. It makes a big difference!) My son loves the funny pictures in the print version of Lileks’s Gallery and laughing at all the many uses for Jell-O in the 1950s and 1960s.
So, imagine my surprise to discover that someone compiled a cookbook of recipes eaten by James Dean. Regular readers of my social media feeds know that in writing my new book, being something of a Method writer, I mixed together and tried Dean’s college-era staple of oatmeal, mayonnaise, and jelly. But there is no way I’m eating this bizarre recipe that, in daisy-chain fashion, the cookbook author said he heard from a guy who said he got it from author John Gilmore who claimed to have received it from Sammy Davis, Jr. with the note that Dean had cooked it for Davis one morning. Take it with a grain of salt:
Yes, it is an omelet layered with Kraft cheese, sardines, raspberry jam, and marijuana. I can’t stop laughing just thinking about how godawful that mess must be—and I spread berry or cherry preserves on my panini because I think they complement the Italian meats and mozzarella. It sounds like something got confused or lost in translation.
Now, to be fair, jelly omelets—allegedly a French treat—were unappetizing staples of early and middle twentieth century American cuisine, typically served as a sweet dessert with powdered sugar, like a crepe. Sardine omelets were also popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, though this made for a savory omelet that I have never seen mixed with jelly. That’s not to say the recipe doesn’t have traditional antecedents, bastardized. According to Eggs in a Thousand Ways, a twentieth-century guide to cooking eggs, every combination of ingredients found their way into eggs, including calf’s brains, lettuce, fried pumpkin buds, bone marrow, etc. Obviously, the marijuana was not original to any of the omelet recipes.
OK, so the gross food is the fun part. But there is also a serious side as to why I bring this up. The author of that cookbook, Gregory Swenson, spent twenty years investigating the food that James Dean ate and has made that food a regular part of his own diet. After decades of becoming increasingly active in James Dean fan circles, he befriended the remaining living people who knew Dean in life and a couple of years ago gave up his life in Greece to move with his partner to Dean’s hometown in order to work in the florist shop Dean’s aunt founded and to devote his life to a perpetual and annual cycle of Dean fandom. I confess to having difficulty understanding that level of devotion.
What astonishes me more than an isolated case is that, in my research, I encountered similar stories over and over again, stretching from the late 1950s down to the 2010s. Each time, the outline is almost unchanged. Someone is typically exposed to a James Dean movie in adolescence, identifies deeply with one or more of Dean’s movie characters, and progresses over years from interest to obsession. In the most developed stages, the individual believes herself or himself in a special relationship with Dean. In a number of cases large enough to be trend, they also feel compelled to move to Dean’s adolescent hometown of Fairmount, Indiana—a place he fled at the first opportunity and years later literally wrote a poem about how inhospitable it was to him—to live close to his grave.
This pattern has all of the hallmarks of a religious conversion, like the zealots who move to Jerusalem to relive the life of Christ, yet it seems intimately bound to reliving adolescence through its avatar. But I remain amazed that seven decades after Dean’s death, it’s still going on, apparently through a process of self-radicalization, since the cult has no leader. It’s strange to me that people well into middle age devote themselves to a very young man.
I honestly don’t get it. Perhaps it is because I never saw a James Dean movie, or thought anything about him, until I was 39, so I lack a certain emotional engagement that one develops in adolescence. But even so, it’s still weird that a 1950s movie star still has that kind of pull. When I was a teenager, I visited Mark Twain’s grave since he was my favorite writer at the time and I had read all his books and several biographies. I toured his home and communed with his typewriter, but that lasted a couple of hours and I never thought about it again. I never once considered giving up my life to sail down the Mississippi, a river I have never seen. I will always have my shelf of Twain first editions, but I can’t for the life of me remember where the photos from that trip are, or if they still exist.
Just to make it more surreal, Fairmount, Indiana is also the hometown of Jim Davis, the creator of Garfield, so the annual Dean festivals are shared with Garfield the cat, and the sheer absurdity of it almost beggars belief.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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