Here's where I let my thoughts go this way and that on food-related topics.

Kitchen Surrealism

Go To Sweet & Sour Archive

There's a kind of recipe that is almost extinct. If you're lucky you might spot one in a cookbook written by a local ladies' club or in the back of your mom's recipe box.

I think of it as the Surrealist Recipe. It takes an ordinary recipe except for one very weird ingredient. (Think of those Surrealist art classics: Salvador Dali's melting clocks, Meret Openheim's fur-lined tea cup.)

It's the recipe for the perfectly normal-tasting cake which contains- surprise!- a can of tomato soup. It's the recipe for Coca-Cola Chicken (reputedly one of Elvis' favorites). It's the German Surprise Chocolate Cake which everyone is hoovering happily until the cook ever so casually tells them they are ingesting saurkraut.

I can't help wondering how the woman who invented German Surprise Chocolate Cake discovered that saurkraut baked in a cake actually tastes all right. Was it a trial-and-error endeavor? What were the other unlikely ingredients she tested in her cake before she hit on saurkraut? Did she try frozen mixed vegetables? Kibble and Bits? Motor oil?

The bigger question is why women were motivated to dream up these bizarre recipes in the first place. Was it just a fad like poodle skirts, Morton Downey Jr., and wheat-grass smoothies? Was it a discrete little arena of pre-Betty Friedan domestic creativity that fizzled when women joined the workforce and came home too tired to do anything much in the kitchen but defrost Lean Cuisine and Sara Lee? I'd like to think these woman - let's call them Domestic Surrealists - were inspired by an instinct to subvert the dominant paradigm (the last phrase is one I picked up from a bumper sticker I see a lot in Berkeley).

I don't care if half the women creating these recipes were Republicans in the voting booth, they were subversives in the kitchen. They dared to defy Fannie Farmer, Irma Brombecker, Betty Crocker, Julia Child - those kitchen goddesses who taught them everything they knew.

"You have to know the rules to break them," so declared Gustave Courbet, one of the best bad-boy artists in19th century Paris. My guess is that these domestic surrealists knew all the rules of cooking by heart and could produce a pot roast and a Baked Alaska with admirable facility and skill. And it was precisely because they had reached mastery of the kitchen arts that they had the confidence - cockiness even - and restlessness to start pushing the rules around a little.

And there's nothing cooler than proving that you can break the rules and get away with it. Mrs. German Surprise did it with chutzpah. (The recipe would not have qualified asI love these Mystery Ingredient recipes.

They have a ingenuity, incongruity, and a sly sense of humor.