Batavia, New York
H.L. Mencken mocked the authors of I’ll Take My Stand, the classic 1930 manifesto of Twelve Southerners, as ‘typewriter agrarians’. The gibe was partly fair and partly not, but then a strict adherence to fact is a disability in a humorist — it is what adds those warning braces to his title and makes him that deadliest enemy of the lively reader: the ‘humorist’.
Always self-reproving, never self-improving, Jason Peters, a scapegrace professor of something-or-other at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, gemstone of the Quad Cities, is no ‘humorist’. Though his new book is titled The Culinary Plagiarist, he is no keyboard kebabist either. Peters, the beloved Bar Jester of the localist website Front Porch Republic, has had the charmingly poor timing to publish the funniest book you’ll read — or ought to read — all year, just at a time when wit, ever distrusted, is on its way to being outlawed.
The Culinary Plagiarist is a winkingly splenetic and sneakily devout meditation on the joys of cooking (and undercooking) and local IPAs and bacon grease and skipping breakfast and, oh yes, the Incarnation. For the author is an Orthodox Christian, Antiochian division, though he is not above remarking upon his hairy-shouldered Greek coreligionists. (And their husbands.)
Jason Peters has repatriated to Michigan and the town of Williamston, which was founded by a Williams who couldn’t cut it in my hometown of Batavia, New York and so slunk off to a precinct in which his talents would make more of an impression. ‘The prodigal has come home,’ writes Peters, ‘though in my version he throws his own feast and doesn’t have a pissed-off older brother.’ Peters was a basketball phenom in his youth, making first-team high-school All-State. Measured against the thin ranks of scrivening hoopsters, he is less decadent than Jim Carroll and less boring than Bill Bradley. He has been happily married for three decades-plus to his high-school cheerleader and sweetheart the long-suffering Kristin, whose sobriquets in The Culinary Plagiarist include the Counter of Cocktails, the Chief Eye-Roller and Goddess Excellently Bright. Kristin, her man concedes, often opts for ‘the strong loving masculine arms of my great rival: he that goes by the name “Sleep”’.
Or maybe she’s only faking the shut-eye. You can’t blame the Goddess for Excellently Slumbering when her husband, preparing a topping for a baguette, commands: ‘Behold the garlic cloves on their sides, inclining in love and affection toward one ingredient or another, the stately and solemn olive oil, erect and ready behind it all! Lord have mercy but the heart cracks!’
When not counting cocktails, the Goddess is a night nurse whose nocturnal absences inspire such ejaculations as ‘O, my darling! If only you weren’t feeding catheters into the urethras of other men tonight!’
Except at Lent, Peters drinks, often using the Good Lord as his shield. He confesses to a bout with Beefeater — ‘Memoryeater’, he calls it — ‘during those festal days between Nativity and Theophany, when, it seems to me, a proper Christian ought to get tight a time or two. (You know the disciples got obliterated on Holy Saturday. That’s the reason the women beat them to the tomb the next day.)’
He’s just getting wound up: ‘Now there’s going to be a puritan out there telling you you shouldn’t drink alone. But you’re not alone. Didn’t Jesus say, “Lo! I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world”? You, my friend, are in good company.’ He walks with me and He talks with me — hell, He even drinks with me!
In the kitchen, the author is dogmatic on the subject of grated Kraft Cheese, aka ‘knock-off foot power’ or ‘ground goat bones’, and an advocate of adding ‘anti-social amounts of garlic’ to almost anything. He is also a devotee of steak tartare and castigates the ‘vegetarians and…sissy carnivores’ who recoil at raw meat as atheists and Darwinists ‘who have never been transfigured’ or ‘SuperMoms and Creation Museum ticket-takers who have never been properly laid’.
Perfusing all his one-liners and salacious limericks and obiter dicta that would trigger mass enuresis at Oberlin is a stirringly Christian, localist, agrarian, Michigan-marinated vision.
Like the great Edward Abbey, Jason Peters writes to entertain his friends and exasperate his enemies. He is a stylist of grace and dexterity who tosses off bon mots like hand grenades and, like all real humorists, he is willing to take the what-the-hell dive off the cliff. You can even forgive him for being the world’s last surviving fan of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils.
No one who eats food or laughs at jokes should be without The Culinary Plagiarist. Buy a copy and be sure to stick it in your rucksack when the Thought Police come knocking. It’ll make comforting bedtime reading in the Reeducation Camp.
This article is in The Spectator’s September 2020 US edition.