Book Reviews, Essays

Book Review – John Baeder’s Road Well Taken

John Baeder’s Road Well Taken
by Jay Williams
Copyright 2015, Vendome Press New York
272 pages

John Baeder’s Road Well Taken on:
Amazon | Indiebound | Goodreads

Look at the picture on the cover of this book. It precisely illustrates the vanishing roadside culture us roadside junkies would prefer to be in, right? Now look again. The old cars, the signs, the building? Not a photograph. It’s a painting. One that comes from the thoughtful mind and astounding talent of master photorealist painter, John Baeder. If you have never seen John Baeder’s work I assume you’re as surprised as I was when I first saw this book in the bookstore. Even now, my heart speeds up when I see it. Baeder’s paintings are nothing short of magical and this book is filled with them.

Yes, I am a big fan.

“Baeder is at heart a communicator who is amazingly effective when he has an opportunity to present his art in conjunction with essay and anecdote. His interest in national identity could be expressed only in personal, mythic terms.”  – art historian and author, Jay Williams

This is exactly what we get with this book. Thank goodness.

I bought this 10 x 10 inch book back in April of 2016,  and it’s been following me from room to room ever since. Every page is filled with Baeder’s incredible images coupled with his own words as well as Williams’ heartfelt, conversational text. It never fails to cheer me up and make me smile. I love this book. John Baeder’s Road Well Taken provides an escape into the place where that roadside culture and sense of community converge. I love spending time there. This book is the story behind these paintings that Baeder has graciously given us over the past 40 years.

When I bought this book I was not aware of John Baeder. That’s a shame and I’m ashamed to admit it.  I was aware of the “diner consciousness” movement his paintings provoked, but knew little about the man and his art. Before the diner paintings he might be most known for,  Baeder gave us powerful documentary-style photography inspired by the FSA photographers, he collected and continues to share his photographs and images of the vanishing hand-lettered signs he has found in his travels and he has always been a steward of the American roadside culture I am so consumed by. He has painted many, many scenes from small-towns and cities throughout the country and I feel right at home in every one of them. Needless to say, today, I am VERY aware of and VERY grateful for John Baeder. With this book,  the books he himself has written,  his website and his Instagram feeds (@johnbaeder and @gmmebbq) John Baeder has become a pretty big deal around here. I wouldn’t hesitate to call him an inspiration.

This book is a biography of John Baeder’s passion. He communicates his respect for the values of  roadside culture with every incredible painting. The still-lifes inspired by 17th, 18th and 19th century European still-life artists using north light and the vintage 1930s and WWII military airplanes that came later offer that same respect and admiration of subjects from the painter. Anyone that has even a remote interest in roadside culture, art, and/or painting would find great value here. I learned a lot in these pages about history, painting, John Baeder, even about myself. Jay Williams is an excellent writer, and I’m grateful he included so many quotes from Baeder himself. It’s enlightening to see how Baeder was affected by these places and the photographs and postcards from them and how they came to fruition later in his painting. It’s not a chronological book, but it is logical and covers the 40+ years of his artistic career from Atlanta to New York to Nashville.  It begins just before Baeder decided to become a full-time painter. At the time, he was the Art Director at New York City’s largest advertising agency, McCann-Erickson. As a former employee of a Chicago ad agency, I felt an instant connection to Baeder when I read that. I wasn’t an art director, but because of that experience, I know that the art director position he held was a very big deal and probably paid very well. To leave it behind and pursue a passion like painting is just one way Mr. Baeder inspires me.

I also felt a connection when I read about his postcard collection and his love of photography. I love these things too, and we have a similar (i.e., the same) interest in subjects. As I read through the book, more than once I said to anyone who was listening, “Me too! I do that too! How in the world did I not know of him before?!” Like I said, it’s a shame I didn’t.

The chapters of this book take the reader on an authentic roadside journey through the midcentury America that existed before the interstates. All of it through Baeder’s unique eye – his thoughtful, creative, unique eye – and his mega-talented ability to preserve these moments of our history. Photography and photographers, especially of the documentary genre, along with color-saturated linen postcards inspired Mr. Baeder, but his “respect for the culture of the common folk” is, in my opinion, what elevates his paintings in the hearts and minds of viewers.

“Baeder was concerned with “the humanistic implications of roadside architecture.”

It’s a simple explanation, but true. When I see the paintings I feel this. It’s exactly what makes them so special and what makes me feel so attached to them.

The largest section of the book is of course devoted to the diners. John Baeder started the diner preservation trend in the late 70’s when he drew attention to diner history with his paintings. He became an expert in diner culture when he crossed the country on “diner hunts” that were meant to inspire his art. He “created paintings that enshrined diner values,” says Williams. “He was very interested in their place in American culture.” There are well over a hundred of Baeder’s diner paintings in this book. Every time I stop and look at one I see something I didn’t see before. The detail, lighting, sharpness in each image amazes me.

After relating the “Final Diner Series” in Baeder’s career, Williams touches on what has come after. I’ve come to thinking of them as “bonus chapters” because they’re filled with subjects I didn’t expect when I first picked this book up. “The Still Lifes: An Inner Road Trip” is the chapter filled with the story behind the images of vintage cars, books, fruits and other objects Baeder has done since the diner days. The next chapter, “Taking Wing on a Higher Road” is filled with the monochromatic military airplane paintings he’s done recently.

The book is printed on sturdy paper with a design that does the images justice. Well, as much justice as a small reprint of an original painting of a 60″ x 72″ canvas can do.  It’s beautiful. I love getting lost in it. Author Jay Williams has written several essays on art and has developed and managed dozens of exhibitions for art museums and universities during his career as a curator. Williams curated the four-museum retrospective of Pleasant Journeys and Good Eats Along The Way: The paintings of John Baeder while he was curator at the Morris Museum in Augusta, Georgia.  John Baeder is a “captivating, complex, multifaceted” man and Jay Williams has done a great job of telling the reader why he feels like that. I appreciate that, but it’s John Baeder himself that makes this a book to hold on to and read often. He loves his subjects as much as we do.

Further reading:

After reading John Baeder’s Road Well Taken, I found Postcard America: Curt Teich and the Imaging of a Nation 1931-1950, by Jay Meilke, copyright 2016 from the University of Texas Press. It’s an excellent book about Curt Teich Chicago and the linen postcards that inspired Mr. Baeder. It references him several times which lends it a lot of credibility considering the size of Baeder’s collection of these cards.

“He found enchantment, awe and important artifacts of American culture in the creative tension between the postcards photographic realism and their surreal treatments,” says Williams.

Books by John Baeder:

Diners (1978)
Gas Food and Lodging (1982)
Diners Revised and Updated (1995)
Sign Language (1996)
Pleasant Journeys and Good Eats Along the Way: The Paintings of John Baeder (2007)

John Baeder’s Road Well Taken
Amazon | Indiebound | Goodreads

Book Reviews, Essays

Cookbook Review: Route 66 Cookbook – Comfort Food From the Mother Road

Route 66 Cookbook, Deluxe Edition: Comfort Food From the Mother Road
by Marian Clark
Copyright 2003 (Originally Published in 1995)
Council Oak Books
272 Pages
The paperback version appears to be out of print, but is available at used book stores and at Amazon. The hardcover version is currently in stock at Amazon.

Marian Clark travelled Route 66 many times to collect the recipes included in this cookbook and it shows, she knows her stuff.   There are several recipes from several restaurants from every state the highway travels through. This cookbook is an ambitious labor of love for the author and a lot of fun for the nostalgia-loving reader as well as the home cook. As Michael Wallis says in the introduction, “Eateries on 66 are as varied as their owners.” And that’s exactly what Marian Clark has curated with this collection.

We begin in Chicago and end in California, just like the highway itself. Recipes from Navy Pier in Chicago to the Santa Monica Pier in California are here. From ethnic foods like Mexican Squash to pure American diner staples like French toast and any one of a dozen or so burgers, they’re all here. And pie. There’s a lot of pie. 2400 miles of food divided by state. As an avid home cook and lover of food,  I can’t think of a better way to experience a place than it’s food and Marian Clark has given us quite a Route 66 experience. I’ve taken road trips on the Mother Road several times, but have not had the pleasure of eating in many of the places along it. I appreciate having these recipes! There are dozens of interesting mini-histories written about each restaurant and the towns they’re in that make this an adventure in food culture.  The restaurants  all have a description with them that includes its relationship to the highway too, like if it’s still there or how it came down if it’s not. Using old postcards to illustrate the book makes it all feel exactly right. Marian Clark is a terrific writer. You can tell she loves her subject and that makes all the difference.

Some recipes are restaurant-sized (i.e. huge) but all have been scaled down for home cooking. I found it interesting to see those big recipes though and how these cooks prepared their food for the mass of visitors every day. For instance, the first ingredient in the Palmer House Hilton French Quarter Seafood Gumbo? 2 quarts of oil.  No worries, a more manageable Gumbo recipe for us home cooks is right next to it but I love that these are included.

I feel right at home and comfortable with these recipes and have had a lot of fun cooking them. All the extra nostalgia and history makes me feel like I’m right there at the restaurant out there on the road. I’ve come across a handful of typos, but I haven’t found one in a recipe yet. In fact, the only negative I have for this book is that the index is horrible. Actually, there are two indexes, one by recipe and one by restaurant. One of the first things that caught my eye in the book was the Banana Cake from the U Drop Inn in Texas. I didn’t write down the page number when I saw it, thinking I’d be able to find it again in the index, and couldn’t remember what restaurant or state it was in. The index wasn’t helpful in finding it by simply looking up “Banana Cake.” (I never did find it in the index until I had the name of the restaurant) I had to go through each page (albeit gladly) to find it again. This time I marked all the recipes I wanted to try first. Problem solved.

Some of the recipes we’ve tried so far:

Black Bean Salad or Salsa

Bean Salad or Salsa, p. xx – from Molly’s Landing, Catossa, Oklahoma

It’s also good as a quesadilla filling, which has turned out to be our favorite way of eating it (with some Monterey Jack cheese). Many of the ingredients in this recipe came from canned vegetables, making it easy to mix together, but I can’t wait to try it with farmer’s market produce. It’s a pleasure to eat. It feels fresh, has a crunchy texture and made more than enough for other uses or leftovers.

U Drop Inn’s Banana Cake

Banana Cake, p. 110 – from the U Drop Inn, Shamrock, Texas

I’ve been eyeing this cake since I first saw this cookbook in our local library a year ago. It screams “traditional diner food”  to me. I finally got to try it last week and I’m happy as can be with it! I know this might sound funny but I love that it’s a sheet cake baked in a 9 x 13 cake pan. I can just see it sitting on my grandparents’ kitchen countertop, with that sliding metal lid on it, waiting for our arrival. Grandpa always had a cake in that thing and this cake lives up to that sweet memory. It’s funny how food can bring up memories you thought were long gone. Anyway, I will probably add another banana to this cake next time, but other than that it’s sheet cake paradise. I can remember hating not enjoying caramel frosting on anything back in the day, but I sure enjoyed this one. We’ll definitely make this cake again. And again. Delicious.

Potato Pancakes

Potato Pancakes, p. 2 – from Polka Sausage and Deli, Chicago

I put Hubby in charge of this one. After all, he is the potato master at our house, and he was up to giving these a go. We both thought they were good, but I have to be honest, I wanted them to be a little crispier. Hubby reminded me that they’re pancakes, and not hash browns, and I accepted that. Sort of. We served ours with apple sauce and homemade rhubarb ketchup (the only way to go for these, in my opinion). I’m sure Hubby will make these again, he really loves them.

Meiki’s Route 66 Fettuccini Alfredo

Fettuccini Alfredo, p. 97 – Meiki’s Route 66 Restaurant, Oklahoma City

We don’t eat much Fettuccini Alfredo around here, but I had to try this because pasta of any kind brings back good memories from road trips. I’m not sure why, but it does and this one lives up to those memories. Once again it was a good eat and so simple to make.

I am loving how the recipes in this book bring back such good memories of road trips we’ve taken, says a lot for them.

The La Fonda French Toast

French Toast, p. 140 – from LaFonda, Santa Fe, New Mexico

It has been years since I’ve had French toast anywhere. Not sure why, because it’s one of my all time favorite things. I had some leftover Apricot Fennel bread that was sort of a bust for other uses, but it was absolutely perfect for French toast. This took just a few minutes to make and it was amazing. Great texture, nice flavor and yeah, it reminded us of a diner breakfast out on the road.

It doesn’t get any better than this!
There are so many recipes left to try, we’ll be cooking from it for years to come. This cookbook is a treasure!

Book Reviews, Essays

Book Review – Postcard America: Curt Teich and the Imaging of a Nation 1931-1950

Postcard America: Curt Teich and the Imaging of a Nation 1931-1950
By Jay Meilke
Copyright 2016
University of Texas Press
520 Pages, $45.00

1900s postcard of the Curt Teich postcard factory in Chicago. Many of the postcards that will illustrate Faded Highways were designed and printed in this factory.

Curt Teich and Company began printing the linen postcard in Chicago in 1931 and sold hundreds of thousands of them over the course of the next 20 years. Postcard America: Curt Teich and the Imaging of a Nation 1931-1950  is their story. Jeffrey Meikle gives us not only an extensive history of Curt Teich & Co. and its cards, but a comprehensive observation of the cards’ cultural significance. For someone like me who loves these postcards for their beautiful images and the cultural history they hold, this book is a genuine treasure.

Postcards have been recording our cultural history en masse since their popularity exploded during the Columbian Exposition of Chicago in 1893. That’s when they were introduced to the crowds as souvenirs of their visit to that year’s World’s Fair. They’re popularity didn’t slow down for decades. They’ve undergone some changes since then, but none were as unique as the linen postcard. These cards, called linens because of their embossed surfaces that resemble linen fabric, were little pieces of artwork that included photography, painting and graphic manipulation to create the perfect image of a memory for its customer. Postcard America: Curt Teich and the Imaging of a Nation 1931-1950 is the first time anyone has taken a comprehensive look into the process, places and the people behind linen postcards. If, like me, mid-century history and nostalgia is your thing you will love this book.

Postcard America: Curt Teich and the Imaging of a Nation 1931-1950 is divided into four sections, the first being a readable, brief history of postcards in general and Curt Teich’s role in that history. This leads right into the beginning of the linen postcard industry and Curt Teich’s dominance of it during the early days of the linen phenomenon. The next section is a “portfolio” of cards called, “Landscapes.” This portfolio is broken down into the sections: Representative Vistas, The Southwest: A Regional Aesthetic, Travel and Tourism, Scenic People, Resources and Infrastructure and Transportation. The second portfolio is “Cityscapes” and includes sections devoted to postcards with scenes of: Overviews, Skyscrapers, Main Streets, Landmarks, Recreation, World’s Fairs and Accommodations.

Linen postcards weren’t at all like the black and white, documentary-type of photography that the Real Photo Postcards before them were. The linens were manipulated images meant to respond to the bleak years following the Great Depression they came of age in. They were a record for the way “people wanted things to look.” John Baeder, the realist painter and postcard collector said, “their popular imagery defies the dark cloud of the the 1930s.” And so it was. Curt Teich’s new trademarked color process, C.T. Art-Colortone, was introduced (it was more of a “happy accident” as the reader sees in the book) to produce these bright, surreal images of everything from architecture to highways to national parks in the light America wanted them to be in.

There is a somewhat detailed description of the C.T. Art-Colortone process that produced the linen postcards. I love knowing that the sales agents were very often the designers of these cards too. Meilke describes the process in detail from the initial source photograph to the Art Institute of Chicago artists who made collages out of several photographs for one postcard to the retouch department’s hand in creating the bright, vivid colors used in every linen and ultimately the printing process for them.

Postcard America: Curt Teich and the Imaging of a Nation 1931-1950 is a beautiful book that is not at all cluttered or overwhelming. It certainly could have been. There are just enough images of the cards for the book to have a visual presence but there’s plenty of room left for Meilke’s detailed history of the linen postcard. I especially found Meilke’s thoughts of each individual card ambitious without giving the reader information overload. Again, all of this easily could have gone the way of being cluttered and overwhelming given the volume of cards available to Meilke from the Curt Teich job files he had access to as he was writing this book, but it wasn’t at all. I found myself wanting more. I love knowing that there are more people out there who are as fascinated as I am about the history within these postcards. Reading Meilke’s history of them here almost felt like I was having a discussion with him about each individual card. It was a terrific read.

The final section of the book, “From a Rearview Mirror: Contemporary Reflections,” is a nice wrap up of all this book has covered. These cards are our every day American history. They are, as the author writes, “wanderers through time.” With linen postcards, however, the actual past they survived from was not the one portrayed on their vivid, surreal surfaces” but the one the people of the day wanted their history to be.

I’ve had this book for a while now, and I still have it out on the coffee table and pick it up often. The book is beautiful.

First reviewed by me on Goodreads October 12, 2016.