It’s really hard to pinpoint the exact moment when food turned from an everyday staple to a sign of social status. Long before organic baby greens and free-range chickens were indicators of quality and culinary consideration, mothers just wanted to know how to feed their perpetually hungry and always finicky broods. Yet is seems like ever since cuisine went haute for the masses, dining has become a surreal social struggle with suburbanites frequently playing a gourmet game of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’…pantry. Between slices of garlic-tinged foccacia and servings of slightly seared tuna, comestibles have blossomed into the new Hummer of hunger. We don’t just want a regular pizza or a standard burger. All our dough must be hand thrown, and all our beef raised by farmers in touch with the inner patty of their bovine brethren.
Prior to the advent of mass media, women had to learn the basics of baking and basting from their own maternal guides, and even then they were only getting those traditional recipes that sated the relatives back in the old country. In many cases that meant that if the dish didn’t contain several layers of lard and an unhealthy helping of various other greases, oils and edible lubricants, it didn’t have the wholesome heritage seal of approval. As a matter of fact, many modern homemakers failed to differentiate between feasts created by peasants who were happy just to have a selection of organ meats as part of their ever-dwindling daily bread, from more balanced ingredients available for a modern-day lifestyle in modern-day abundance.
When television turned out to be more than just a dismissible national fad, sometime in the early ‘50s, programmers immediately started seeking ways to fill up broadcasting time. The boob tube was rapidly replacing radio and the newspaper as the masses main source of information. Of the many possible series solutions, the how-to show seemed as logical as any. They were easy to produce and had their own built in production value, i.e., the subject matter. What with the areas around our major cities becoming bastions of worn out white flight, and all over a bustling, post-war nation, individuals were craving help in learning how to exist inside this new non-cosmopolitan bubble. In the big city, solutions sat on every block.
Take dining, or example. There was a restaurant or deli around every corner, and if you didn’t feel like frequenting the establishment itself, take-out was just a friendly phone call (or jog down the stairs) away. But there was no such readily available meals buried in the planned communities of the new America, or out among the amber waves of grain. Instead, potential eaters had to travel to something called a supermarket to grab ‘fresh’ (or canned, or boxed) groceries. Then after proper preparation and heating, these prepackaged foodstuffs were somehow supposed to magically become the evening vittles.
It was Julia Child who first gave a bland gravy and washed out vegetable nation a literal taste of the good life. Via her well-received take on the Cordon Bleu method, the French Chef introduced an entire populace packed with suet that there was more to life than fatty cuts of indistinct animal boiled in oil and served with a slathering of rich creamery margarine. With her down to earth dowager attitude mixed with an occasional tendency to muff things quite badly—burning her entries, dropping entire desserts on the floor—Child proved that anyone, even the occasionally klutz, could be a pseudo sensation in the kitchen. Before long, she was joined by the likes of Graham Kerr, the so-called Galloping Gourmet, who would modify Child’s sensible choices into a nonstop selection of artery clogging conceits. For Kerr, always a little tipsy from the everpresent cooking sherry, lobster drowned in a hopelessly heavy béarnaise sauce was an easily obtainable staple for even the most amateur home cook.
It’s no surprise then, that as high fat cuisine went high class, a low brow backlash began. It started locally of course, with YWCAs and local women’s leagues giving lessons in lessoning the amount of heart attacking hubris in the nation’s noshing. Eventually, this back to basics approach that focused on uncomplicated home cooking was melded with the fledging feminist movement. It wasn’t long before simplicity and stinginess became the mantra for a populace sick and tired of meals that appeared more affluent than the viewer learning to prepare them. It was this ‘shake and bake’ style of food prep that carried Larry Bly and Laban Johnson through almost 22 years on their comedy culinary series, Cookin’ Cheap.
The product of a Roanoke, Virginia public television station, Bly and MrJohnson couldn’t have been more different from one another. Larry was a successful ad executive who ran his own company. Laban was a big, blustery Southern dandy who taught school by day and did local theater by night. Larry had a sense of humor that was as dry as his own overdone cornbread, while Laban loved to laugh and always appeared jollier than the Green Giant, whose come in the freezer or from the can string beans the TV host frequently festooned with fried onion rings. How these two came to be partnered up is a media mystery, but the result made for a delicious watch. Instead of taking food and its preparation to new, novel levels, Laban and Larry went retro; exploring recipes that were fast, cheap, and simple to prepare.
At first, Cookin’ Cheap was all about that long lost feed art form known as ‘white trash cookery’. Heretofore unheard of in the meat and potato metropolises of the planet—places where businessmen ate blue steaks washed down with heaping helpings of sour creamed russets and Beefeater martinis—trailer park pot luck was, albeit same old, same old for the lower working class—something rather ‘new’ for the bored with their fare middle class. Laban and Larry were determined to give their viewing audience a chance to impress their friends at the next dinner party with what they could do with a can of Spam, a bottle of Coke, and the left over pickle brine in their refrigerator.
The series’ premise had the duo introducing recipes sent in by fans, with many of these time-tested taste bud tempters of the ‘open and pour’ variety. On many episodes, the only appliance utilized was the can opener. Various mixed vegetables (usually frozen or canned) were combined with canned creamed soups and indeterminate tinned meats to make supposedly mouthwatering casseroles and one dish dinners. It was like a return to the Betty Crocker cookery of the ‘50s, only with less radish rosettes.
It was not unusual for Cookin’ Cheap to feature hotdogs rolled in crescent dough (found in the freezer section of your local grocery store), each piggy festooned with slices of that Confederate favorite . . . stuff . . .Velveeta. On other occasions the same kind of store bought, plastic-wrapped franks were chopped up fine, mixed with a can of chili and a can of Cheez Whiz for instant Coney Island soup. (Yum! Yum!) All throughout the preparation, Laban and Larry would laugh and joke, ridiculing each other’s efforts and bad mouthing the seemingly inedible items they were creating. Larry enjoyed scoffing at Laban’s love of anything ‘doughy, dumpling, or deep fried’. Johnson frequently joked about Bly’s baked good, faking a choking jag when his basic box cake would wind up as dry as a handful of sawdust.
Sometimes, they admittedly discovered that bottled French dressing, Stove top stuffing, a little leftover tuna fish, and a grapefruit half didn’t forge a fascinating dish. Of course, the best part of every week’s show was watching the boys sit down to another stomach stretching experiment. Sometimes, it was the recipe that failed. No matter how hard they tried, this duo couldn’t salvage a confusing concoction of baloney, brown mustard, and peach pie filling. Undaunted, our happy hosts would merely giggle as they tried to choke down a serving of one viewer’s 15 Bean Salad Medley.
There were the times when no matter the ingredients, the cooks got it wrong. Larry couldn’t wait for Laban to taste his cornflake fried chicken. One bite, however, and it was soon discovered that Larry had used the sugary frosted flakes by accident. The embarrassment of having a sugar coating for his impeccably cooked bird wasn’t about to dissuade Larry. He just picked up a wing, himself, and chowed down. And that’s how things went for nearly 22 years. Nothing much changed on Cookin’ Cheap from week to week. Each episode, the guys would bring out their groceries, set up their areas, and start the creative combinations. The dishes were typically on the down home and dowdy side, the kind of failed first tries you’d expect a ‘50s-era newlywed bride to offer her guinea pig spouse. There was more Minute Rice, Miracle Whip, Lowery’s Seasoned Salt and Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer used in this show than in an entire Appalachian enclave. As they walked the fine line between admiring and mocking the type of meals they were creating, Laban and Larry became a surreal social dichotomy.
On the one hand, they wanted to appear like savvy Southern sophisticates, not some rural rubes without a cultural clue. When a recipe appeared ‘beneath’ them, they let the audience know. On the other hand, they didn’t care if dishes called for fruit was never fresh but always available packed in heavy syrup, and actually enjoyed true food oddities like Vienna Sausages and Dried Beef covered in numerous brown sugar and ketchup-based glazes. It was a balancing act between the blue collar and the Blue Ridge. Cookin’ Cheap wanted to pay tribute to both, as well as chuckle at their individual edible eccentricities.
Eventually, Laban’s larger than life style caught up with him and he was diagnosed with what sadly seemed like every food related malady—heart disease, hypertension, diabetes—know to man. As he lost weight to combat the illness, his recipes became more salt, sugar and fat conscious. Larry would still ladle in the cream and butter, but never without a considered glower from Laban’s lowered eyebrows. Time also took its toll on the show. Two decades plus had aged the boys, and they were no longer content to simply spill the contents of a can into a crock pot and hit the ‘on’ switch. Actual fresh ingredients like ground meat, onions, celery and carrots were now being prepared and partaken of.
They even added a new cast member, the wonderfully effusive Doris Ford. A genial grandmotherly type, Doris would stand off camera and aide the boys, repeating a recipe or handing them an out of reach item. Toward the end of an episode, she would show up on stage to share her dish with the home audience (usually a dessert of some sort, prepared well before the taping of the show). In fact, Doris was an extension of the drag act the boys did for a segment of the show called “The Cook Sisters”. Dressing up like direct descendants of Minnie Pearl, the two would hoot and holler before offering up one of a seemingly endless collection of culinary based maxims (“A pinch of baking soda makes for a fresh smelling garbage disposal”).
The most memorable show Laban and Larry ever did was also its saddest. After a typical joke-filled festival of burnt condiments and undercooked main courses, the pair signed off to the anticipation of their piano pounding theme music and animated end credits. This time, as the last laugh faded away, the camera focused on a single rose, sitting respectfully in a small crystal vase. In the background, a plain tablecloth set the mood. As the instantly recognizable strains of “Send in the Clowns” filled the air, we soon learned the reason behind the somber setting. After years of struggling with his various sicknesses, Laban had died. After a few more refrains of the somber song, the image merely faded to black. Larry was back on the air a couple of weeks later to confirm what all had feared. Indeed, his pal Laban had gone to the big Piggly Wiggly in the sky, passing away between the taping and the airing of that particular episode. He also vowed that he would try and continue the series with friend and Laban’s fellow acting buddy, the doughy Doug Patterson.
For a while, it worked. Doug introduced a cornball catchphrase (the decidedly animated exclamation of excellence “Yum-O”) and he was just as catty and critical of his cookmate as Laban. Doris was still around, and Doug even donned a dress to become the latest “lost” member of the Cook Sisters family. What was missing, of course were the old ingredients; the lack of pretense and the pair’s purposeful endeavor to make chicken salad out of chicken…roll. Doug was too self-conscious, aware that he was making a miserable mess for the sake of a no longer fashionable food ideal. Indeed, with the arrival of the Food Network and the notion of restaurants as the spas of a new century, Cookin’ Cheap couldn’t compete. As they mocked the ‘TV chefs’ who used buzzwords to like “BAM” to accent their overcomplicated and culinary school based flavors, Cookin’ Cheap‘s ratings dropped. After almost 22 years, the show was cancelled unceremoniously with little fanfare except a nice “thank you” in the local press.
But what Laban and Larry brought to the how-to show was a sense of communal connection to the people, a throng who felt compelled to write in and share their secrets to making perfect lasagna (here’s a hint: substitute cottage cheese for ricotta) or how to give baked apples a sinfully sophisticated kick (it’s called a shot of bourbon). Not everyone can create a custardy crème brule or a successfully beef bourguignon. On Cookin’ Cheap, there was no need to know the proper way to froth egg whites or scald milk. If the serving suggestion was printed on the package, the boys didn’t bother contextualizing the basting, broasting or braising. To them, food was just a part of life, not some indication of biological upward mobility.
In today’s snooty environ, such a show just won’t work. So called “foodies” take their comestibles far too seriously, and want TV chefs who match their own peculiar personalities. They love it when an overly arrogant Bobby Flay gets flustered as his spicy Southwest-influenced dishes become more and more complex, or rejoice when a perpetually perky Rachel Ray accents her so called 30-minute comfort foods with haughty ingredients like balsamic vinegar and fat slices of brie. Sure, it’s cyclical, and maybe one day, people will stop craving caviar-topped goat cheese and return to the Cookin’ Cheap concept of olive loaf on a Ritz cracker. Today, our Virginia ‘hams’ wouldn’t stand a chance. Laban and Larry were just too fun to be fancy.