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.