Question: Why would you want to read something called The Dismal Cookbook?
Answer: To experience the latest venture into nimble, subversive wordplay by one of southeastern Ohio’s most indefinable homegrown authors, Bram Riddlebarger.
Though he makes his home these days in Athens County, where he both writes books and plays music, Riddlebarger hails originally from Logan – he even let it slip recently that he was valedictorian for the class of ’93 at Logan High School – and his wife’s parents and most of his extended family still live in Hocking County.
After publishing a poetry chapbook, Chez Filthy, in 2009, he followed up with two funny, disquieting novels, Earplugs (2012) and Golden Rod (2018), and then an experimental long work of prose poetry, Poem 3 a.m., in 2019. When this reviewer wrote a piece about Golden Rod in The Athens News, it called the book “darkly hilarious (and) a bit troubling,” and noted the “sublimely goofy” quality of its deadpan prose.
Now Riddlebarger’s back with the self-published Dismal Cookbook, which carries on in much the same spirit, but a very different form. The work is hard to classify; it’s presented in the form of a cookbook, but most of the recipes it offers sound frankly inedible, and many may be impossible to actually make per instructions. Not to mention that all the dishes described are, as the title implies, utterly dismal; just try to imagine, for example, the savory goodness of deep-fried beets stuffed with fish paste.
So what the fork is the deal with this book, anyway? As near as one can tell, it’s about capturing through parody the cozy tone of elegant expertise found in your more refined and epicurean cookbooks, including their breezy use of obscure, specialized kitchen terms, and employing this arcane idiom to say something interesting about food and our relationship to it. If you like that sort of thing, The Dismal Cookbook is the sort of thing that you will like; if not, not. Consider yourself warned.
It should not pass without mention that, like any book with Riddlebarger’s name on the cover, The Dismal Cookbook is quite funny in spots. It’s hard not to appreciate a recipe, for instance, whose first listed ingredient is “one whole, medium duck,” and whose directions include, “Wash the duck, rinse, and pat dry.”
Riddlebarger told The Logan Daily News that the idea for the book came “from reading so many cookbooks and cooking magazines, which I enjoy. There gets to be this rhythm to many of them, particularly the magazines, that to me begins to border on the absurd.” His primary aim in writing it, he said, was “laughs, not disdain,” though he admits to taking pleasure in mimicking the tony voice of recipe compilations written for today’s affluent foodies.
“I grew up on basics and eating whatever we had,” he explained. “Saltines were common. Peanut butter. Carrots. Staples that we would have as a lower income family. I think that has driven me over time to look for more foodways from any culture. To learn through food. This book has become a weird offshoot of that.”
And lest we overlook an obvious parallel, Riddlebarger pointed out that cooking, like writing, can be a creative act; its products may prompt rave reviews and deep consumer satisfaction, or cause heartburn, indigestion and nausea.
“I just feel compelled to create things,” he said. “Some are well-received, some aren’t… I enjoy the act of creation in cooking as well, whether it’s peanut butter and jelly or mole poblano.”
Like Riddlebarger’s other writings, The Dismal Cookbook, while amusing, does have a nasty little reptile of grimness skittering around its borders, kept at bay by the writing’s peculiar wit. But if it qualifies as dark humor, Riddlebarger suggested, it’s more about the humor than the dark.
“I hope it’s taken more like an Edward Gorey story or a somewhat sinister children’s book rather than something that’s to be taken seriously,” he said. “I like to think we can still laugh in the face of the often bleak world we live in. This book hopes to bring just a bit of that to the kitchen.”
The Dismal Cookbook is available on Amazon, and is also on sale at White’s Mill in Athens.