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H.L Mencken Responds
By Kelly Holsten


H.L. Mencken (1880-1954) was an essayist and critic.

We asked Steve Albini to pose a food related question to a dead person.


teve's question:

"H.L. Mencken loved hearty, simple food. He often wrote of his fondness for the shellfish and other seafood from the Baltimore and Chesapeake bays. He fondly recounted many memorable meals of beef and game, and wrote of his appreciation for beer and strong liquor. He also detested snobbery and pretense. I would like to hear his thoughts on the nouvelle cuisine, that silly cul-de-sac of bad taste which substituted tiny food on small plates painted with sauces in place of a meal. I would also like to hear his thoughts on the dreadful trend away from using even moderate amounts of oil or butter in cooking. In my opinion, this sort of dry, dismal non-cuisine is for people whose fear of their own mortality has trumped their common sense and common senses."

H.L. Mencken Responds:

H.L. Mencken Having reached what I thought to be a thankfully unapproachable state, even though I remained unsure up until the last few seconds as to the exact location of my final seating, I now find myself called forth by none other than a musician. I might even have a modicum sympathy if the aforementioned musician was not such questionable talent in an even more questionable genre of music, a genre that appears to be hiding behind an armor of mind numbing cacophony second only to the sounds emanating from a common American steel refinery. Indeed, if Mr. Albini were to fall upon his instrument, blindly knocking it about in its electrified state, I sincerely doubt if the results would differ too greatly frommuch of his work produced to date.

Unfortunately, unsure is not a word I would care to put forth if asked for my opinion of what is essentially the exact literary equivalent of the nouvelle cuisine I was asked to describe. I am referruing to this pamphlet, or 'zine, as the editor so deftly puts it. Although I must commend the man for attempting to fill 30 or so pages on victualry in modern rock culture, an idea that does not merit more than a few sentences at best, this does not warrant a toasting of the English language more befitting of Dr. Leakey's infamous Lucy who might have been more inclined to eat said 'zine rather than read it...

I have tried to rationalize the content of the first two issues as a case of severe lack of vitamin B-12 or perhaps an overdose of whey in the diets of the columnists, but up until now, I have been largely unsuccessful. Of particular worry is the writer by the name Jeffrey-Joe. I have extreme difficulty describing my thoughts after reading the words: superb, worshippin', existentialism, belch, Nietzsche's Obermench philosophy, zipper whitties, phallic food, vulva, Marquis De Sade, Camille Pagalia, and '1000 slavish entreaties (sic) to apply to your pecker' all in one horrifying article. To this beast, I have only one comment: "Of all escape mechanisms, death is the most efficient."

In all honesty, I really do not know how Mr. Albini expects me to answer his questions with serious candor when he is as guilty as a San Franciscan Mime of insulting the intelligence of the few with the creation and production of some of the most intellectually bereft examples of noise made under the guise of music. Actually, I do believe I am being a bit unfair to rest the burden solely on Mr. Albini's shoulders; however, if choosing between a man making amplified bleating sounds with a bugle run over by an ice-cream truck or an undernourished, pale, middle-class American male malcontent, who uses an electronic device and makes his own instrument sound not unlike a gas mower inside a corrugated tin pipe, there is room for error.

I am not trying to imply that Mr. Albini is the worst offender of this sect; to the contrary, he is a verifiable and multi-talented genius in comparison with some of the other band-aids. After glancing over the interview with Railroad Jerk in the initial publication, I was left with a newly found understanding of the true definition of witless.

I will also easily give Mr. Albini the nod in comparison with the so-called commercial "Top-40" artists who illustrate by example the idea that there is something much worse than style over substance, namely style-less over substance-less! Unfortunately, much of this new music is a reaction to the vapid conditions in commercial music this, however, does not excuse the mediocrity over quality approach that this genre has chosen as its main method of operation. Although most commercial music, with its banal and insipid lyrics and over-produced, cliché-ridden musical lines, should be locked in a large crypt and guarded by serious Italians.

Even so, after listening to quite an assortment of artists following the non-commercial approach, it is plainly apparent that a new plateau of self-absorption has been achieved without the judicious use of consciousness. I believe this generation has taken the art of whining to levels previously unknown. I can not think of anything more totally dissatisfying and unappealing than direct-heated self-absorption combined with whining unless, it happens to be mixed in with an atonal, ugly, electrified noise that is no more pleasing than a walk in Central Park next to a French organ grinder with a screeching monkey.

All of this would not be quite so irritating if it were not for the almost stygian-like repetition so prevalent in most of this new music. I have come to believe that much of this blare is composed while the "artist" is in a state of catalepsy; indeed, this goes for the live performances as well. The artists appear to fixate on a simple grouping of notes or a phrase and then proceed to run them over and over as if in a primeval trance. And if Gods do not answer, it is surely not from a lack of volume.

At a casual glance, one comes away with the distinct feeling that Man has turned away from intelligence and beauty to admire monotony and ugliness. Have we grown to cherish unpleasant sound? Have we gathered our better sense, judgment, and taste and deposited it in the out box labeled destination unknown? Ugliness and discordance can give immense satisfaction to the recipient, as well as the originator, but if not thought of in the proper context (arguably, on an instant gratification scale),we then lose scope of the meaning of real quality in the long-term view.

This commentary is starting to approach dissertation length on a subject that merits no further criticism; it could probably use a healthy defense. Of course, I Have most certainly neglected the positive side of this topic, mainly because it is far more amusing or entertaining to do so. Of a more problematic nature is the very fact that I have not addressed the main theme of this declamation, which happens to be nouvelle cuisine.

I at once thought the French unable to deliver a truly offensive concept when it came to victuals, a subject in which they have always had a firm grasp despite their race. But what of a meal that appears as if it were concocted to elicit the need for heavy drink? And I am not referring to the rich accompaniment of a fine wine or robust stout in this instance, I am specifically referring to any brand of beverage, either grain or otherwise, that has the capability to render the concept of reason meaningless. Because if reason prevailed, one would have to give serious rise to laying the groundwork for submerging the responsible Culinary gentlemen into a cask of béchamel and soaked until sense returns home.

Mr. Albini also appears to have an extreme dislike for this "silly cul-de-sac of bad taste" he labels nouvelle cuisine, a fact I find difficult to believe considering his contributions of various recipes listed elsewhere in the pamphlet. After scanning Mr. Albini's suggestions for "gourmet" fare, most notably the Alternative to Whitey Sandwich and Ketchup Soup, I have come to the conclusion that he should be fed a steady diet of Prozac with a side order of Dilantin just to keep him honest.

H.L. Mencken at a Piano To better understand the animal I am dealing with, I have spent the better part of an evening trying to arrive at the proper derivation of Mr. Albini's last name and I have given up to base conjecture. Any name with three vowels, three consonants, and three syllables gives me extreme pause, especially when the last letter is "i", reason alone to consider overseas shipment.

On the other hand, I believe in overseas shipment of roughly 7/10ths of all eateries located in these United States. Americans have somehow managed to remove most, if not all, taste from whatever they cook, grill, boil, sear, or fry. This quality pertains to most ethnic foods as well, for it seems that the longer any ethnic culture is established within these shores, the faster their cuisine turns into homogenous gruel. Perfectly fine vegetables and meats are somehow prepared in just such a way as to render them unrecognizable. Americans also have an unexplainable fondness for foods fried until the batter has conquered any of the original essence. It is more than likely that on a plate of fresh fried seafood, potatoes, and vegetables, the American will apply his sauce de rigor, namely ketchup, so the victuals are practically buried under a sugary, reddish glaze. There is little hope.

I have gone on quite long enough. Butter or no butter, Mr. Albini must come to his senses before his World begins to crumble around him. My advice to those of female gender in close contact with Mr. Albini: Seek protein elsewhere.



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