From the Archives
America's Favorites

Andy Beach had quite a few strange, obscure books from his personal collection for sale at the Apartamento pop-up store in Milan last April. But America’s Favorites kept us captivated for hours: A 1980 anthology of junk food that treated each item like some kind of museum specimen, listing its package dimensions, date of origin, ingredients, and backstory — from macaroni and cheese to Cheez Doodles. The best part was that there seemed to be not a trace of irony behind the presentation, a fact I confirmed by painstakingly tracking down and then interviewing its authors, Kay and Marshall Lee. They simply wanted to present food as art, and the 75 choices in the book happened to be Americans’ most beloved. Both graphic designers as well as writers, the couple were a fixture on the art-book publishing scene at the time, Marshall having served as vice president of Harry Abrams for a spell and having taught bookmaking at NYU for 15 years. Kay worked at Harry Abrams as well, and did most of the research for America’s Favorites, which was published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons (now known as Penguin). She and I spoke at length about the project, and an excerpt from our conversation is below. The slideshow that follows features 13 of the foods from the book, with selected information from the texts accompanying each.

What was the thinking behind the book?
We were just fascinated with food. What do you eat? What are your favorite things? It’s not only how it tastes but how it looks, and how it fits into the context of your life. So much of it goes back to childhood. It’s ingrained in you — you’ve got it in that little unconscious part of you that’s still 5 years old. That child is there saying you really want to have Milk Duds. You want to have truffles too, but the kid still says I want candy.

You and your husband wrote about art and bookmaking before you created America’s Favorites. How did the project come about?
We decided we wanted to make an art book about food, to show each item in a way that was really attractive and beautiful. Because the people who make these foods — even then — went to a great deal of trouble to make them look appealing, so we wanted to present that aspect of it. We did some research on ingredients, which were sometimes shocking but not as shocking as they are now. There were some foods which I won’t name but which I personally thought were abominable — I wouldn’t feed them to a dog. But Americans weren’t as savvy then about what we consumed.

What was your own relationship with food at the time?
I think Marshall and I were a little more educated about it, because we paid attention to what we ate and what was in something. We probably consumed potato chips or popcorn, but we had a wider and more selective taste by that time. My mother was always big on good health and good food. She trained us to look at labels, and if there were things you couldn’t pronounce, you probably didn’t want to buy it. Of course that doesn’t usually help — we’re captured.

What was your research process like?
You can get a lot from the package, and we delved into the various histories of food. We also got information and occasionally beautiful photos from the manufacturers themselves — the ones that were cooperative. Others were so nervous and highly suspicious that they’d get three lawyers on the phone with you. “You cannot use this food,” they’d say. Why not? We weren’t making it look bad, it was just a book about people’s favorites. So from what I recall, we had a couple of generics. One was the gelatin, because we couldn’t use the name Jell-o. We were a very reputable publisher, certainly on the up and up, and we offered every possible bit of information about the book to them, so I don’t know what their reasoning was.

What did you learn during the process that surprised you most?

How old some of the foods were, and how popular they were. Chocolate goes very far back, to the Aztecs, when it was a bitter dark chocolate drink with no sugar in it. The Swiss were the ones that created milk chocolate. Pasta is also ancient. Go to practically any country, and they’ll have some kind of pasta. They may call it something else, and they may not have grains, but they all have pasta. Even the Chinese have rice noodles. You eat what you have, and what makes it the best? Generally it’s whatever your mom made.

How did you ultimately decide which “favorites” to include?
We went into the grocery store, and looked for the shelves that were the emptiest. And we asked our friends. What did my husband grow up with? What did he like as a child? Hot dogs, Jell-o, bread. Anyone who we worked with, including the photographers, they all had input because they all had their favorites.

What was your creative concept for the book? How did you transform junk food into art?
The food manufacturers, if they sent you anything, presented it in the most beautiful advantageous way they possibly could — they would photograph food in crystal goblets. You eat with the eyes first, so it has to look beautiful and appetizing. You look at the photos and think, does that make me want to eat it? Make me want to buy it? It has to be clean and sparkling and lustrous and look so good you want to take it off the page and have a bite.

What was the critical response to the book at the time it came out?

Very positive. No one had seen it done quite like this, and our publisher was such a smart man, he got it immediately. The book was serious in some ways, but also just a lot of fun; here’s a little art book about all the stuff you like, not some fancy French things you know nothing about. This is something you know.

How do you think contemporary readers might view America’s Favorites now?
They’d see it as history, as nostalgia, and of course they’d have their own favorite thing to put in. Where’s my favorite? Why didn’t they include Ring Dings? It would be really fun to redo this with modern foods, but the next one, we’ll wait until we can do it in 3-D.

AFcover

The cover of the book, published in 1980. Its foreword begins: "America's Favorites is a time capsule for the 25th century. It presents in formal array 75 of the most popular enduring foods, confections, and beverages of America in our time. Each one is as familiar and beloved as the Statue of Liberty, Whistler's Mother, a Norman Rockwell cover, or a Grandma Moses landscape." Other examples not included here: Goobers, Wheaties, Tony's Pizza, Cheez Doodles, Campbell's Pork & Beans, Spam.

AFpudding

Originator: D&C Flour Co. Date of origin: Regular, 1918; instant, 1945. Notes: Early cookery grouped dumplings and puddings together, probably because both were cooked by steaming. Very early use of the word referred to sausages, as in black pudding or white pudding. Puddings range from Yorkshire pudding, to Sussex, to sweet, heavy puddings like Christmas plum pudding, to the lighter dessert puddings of milk, eggs, thickeners, and flavorings that Americans think of as puddings.

AFbabyruth

Originator: Otto Schnering. Date of origin: 1920. Slogans: "When You Gotta Have One, You Gotta Have One." Notes: Originally called Kandy Kake, the nut roll was renamed Baby Ruth in the mid-twenties. Contrary to popular belief, it was not Babe Ruth but Grover Cleveland's first daughter, known as "baby Ruth," who was the inspiration. Baby Ruths were publicized by a 26-plane aerial circus, a Scottish Kiltie Band, a racing speedboat, and a six-pony team. In 1924, thousands of the bars, suspended from tiny parachutes, were dropped from airplanes over Pittsburgh. Baby Ruths were carried by MacMillan to the North Pole in 1927; by Admiral Byrd to the South Pole two years later.

AFwhitebread

Originator: Elmer Cline. Date of origin: July 13, 1921. Slogans: "Wonder Bread Builds Bodies 12 Ways"; "To Get Wonder Any Fresher You'd Have to Bake It Yourself" Notes: In large houses centuries ago, a butler gave bread to the diners according to their rank — the freshest for the master, down to the stale loves for the lowest ranking. Wonder's package was inspired by the thousands of balloons released into the air at the Indianapolis Speedway.

AFfritos

Originator: Elmer Doolin. Date of origin: 1932. Slogans: "Truly Krisp and Tender"; "Buy Two and Hide One For You"; "I'll Munch to That" Notes: Young Texan Elmer Doolin purchased the recipe (based on the traditional tortilla), the equipment, and 19 local accounts from a Mexican for $100. He and his mother made the chips in her kitchen. He then put the bagged chips into display racks he had built and persuaded merchants to use them in place of old-fashioned glass jars.

AFmaccheese

Originators: Probably the Etruscans. Date of origin: In some form, believed to be prior to the 3rd century B.C. Notes: It was thought that Marco Polo brought Chinese "spaghetti" to Italy, but macaroni-making tools are seen in the frescoes of Etruscan tombs. The Etruscans are now believed to have migrated to Italy from Lydia (in Asia Minor) about the 12th century B.C.

AFbazooka

Originator: Unknown. Date of origin: Circa 1949. Slogan: "Young America's Favorite" Notes: The size of the biggest bubble ever blown isn't certain, since bubble-blowing contests abound. (There's even a set of rules available from Bazooka.) One documented big bubble was 18 1/4" in diameter, blown in 1975. Children are the primary users of bubble gum, but 25% of the $68-million market belongs to adults, including some congressmen and movie stars.

AFburger

Originator: Maurice and Richard McDonald. Modified by Ray A. Kroc. Date of origin: 1948. Notes: The original McDonald hamburger patties were made 10 to the pound of beef. The Quarter Pounder, shown here, was introduced in 1971. Experiments were conducted to find the right wax paper to use between the patties. It has to be slick enough so the meat will pop onto the grill and not stick, but not so slick as to make handling difficult. McDonald's hamburgers are found in 6,000 outlets in 25 countries. By 1980, over 30 billion had been sold.

AFkfc

Originator: Colonel Harland Sanders. Date of origin: 1956. Slogans: "North America's Hospitality Dish"; "It's Nice to Feel Good About a Meal" Notes: At age 66, Colonel Sanders began to franchise his method of frying chicken. A personal appearance on a TV talk show made him a national symbol. He was still making commercials at age 88. It's said that if all the Kentucky Fried Chickens consumed in the world were laid end to end, they would stretch 93,000 miles, circling the earth four times.

AFcheese

Originator: Borden Foods. Date of origin: Unknown. Notes: Gail Borden patented a process of evaporating milk in 1856, opening the first plant in 1858. On the American Cheese Food package is a picture of Elsie the Cow, who first appeared in cartoon form in 1936. By 1938 she started to get her own fan mail, and in 1939 the first of 15 live Elsies toured the U.S. Elsie appeared at world's fairs, hotels, department stores, parties, and charity drives — later with a husband, Elmer, and a daughter, Beulah, and a son, Beauregard.

AFboyardee

Originator: Hector Boiardi. Date of origin: 1929. Slogan: "A Delicious Hot Meal With Meat" Notes: Signore Boiardi, only 9 when he began as a kitchen apprentice in Italy, worked his way up to be a chef at many famous restaurants in Rome, Paris, and New York. Later, at his own in Cleveland, Ohio, his special recipe for spaghetti and sauce was immediately successful, and he began to sell it for home consumption. His picture still appears on the label of every can.

AFmarshmallows

Originator: Unknown. Date of origin: Campfire marshmallows first sold circa 1900. Slogans: "The Original Food Marshmallow" Notes: The marshmallow confection was originally made from the root of the marsh mallow, a plant native to Europe and a member of the mallow family of herbs and shrubs, many of which grow in marshy areas. Some other family members are cotton, rose of Sharon, okra, and hollyhock.

AFturkeydinner

Originators: W. Charles and Gilbert C. Swanson. Date of origin: Mid-1940s. Notes: Swanson frozen dinners were created to help the servantless American housewife after World War II. New dishes were tested in the kitchens of C. A. Swanson & Sons and then submitted for approval to a panel of hotel chefs and 1,200 housewives. The first "TV Dinner" was turkey, the same dish used by the Pilgrims for their first Thanksgiving dinner more than 300 years earlier.

AFwelchs

Originator: Dr. Thomas Bremwell Welch. Date of origin: 1923. Notes: Dr. Welch produced his first grape juice, Dr. Welch's Unfermented Wine, for local churches. It was renamed Welch's Grape Juice and introduced nationwide at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. The Concord Grape Jelly was created in 1923.