From accordion music to zoot suits, there’s something in here for everyone, though not necessarily in a good way. Jane and Michael Stern have written a number of books, perhaps most notably for those of us into food and travel Roadfood, now up to its seventh edition and other regional cookbooks and travel eating guides. They also wrote The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste and what might be considered a companion volume, The Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, which have a collection of short articles, 1-3 pages, on a range of typically American tropes.
Neither is ‘encyclopedic’ in any way that might threaten the Americanas and Brittanicas of the world. The Sterns haven’t picked out everything that might conceivably be considered in bad taste but rather skipped along the (im)probably high points of cheesiness and kitsch. Aerosol cheese and artificial grass, baton twirling and bowling, (artificial) Christmas trees and Cool Whip, disco, Elvis, fish sticks, game shows, Hamburger Helper through Las Vegas and Liberace, miniature Golf and mud wrestling all the way through to velvet paintings and waterbeds, the Sterns picked out a selection of things from American Culture that are, well, not terribly cultured. On the whole, I’d say the typical reaction of readers will be something combining mystification, revulsion and helpless giggling of the sort that leaves you reaching for tissues to wipe tears away from your eyes. Every once in a while, though, I’m sure people will stop cold with a mournful wail of “But…but…but…I like that.” with a bit of “how dare they call that in bad taste?” thrown in for seasoning–I for one wouldn’t mind getting a tattoo, and I like tuna casserole. On the whole, though, I dare say that American culture would be regarded more highly around the world if the majority of things described here had never happened.
The only drawback I can think of to lay at the Stern’s and the books’ doorstep is that twenty years on, both badly need to be updated. The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste came out in 1990 and The Encyclopedia of Pop Culture came out in 1992; there’ve been a lot of **** tat and an equal number of ‘pop culture’ fads that have come and gone since then. Jane Fonda gained an acting reputation and Michael Jackson lost a nose, among other things.