It took getting past a lot of resistance to watching TV, but we finally succumbed to the hype and watched — marathon style — the first season of “Mad Men”. In every sense, it is an accomplished drama. The trapped, frustrated and entirely colonized women and the stifled, emotionally crippled men make this a story about 1950s oppression. Thank god that’s over, even if some folks would like to bring it all back.
For most viewers, the styling is particularly gripping. Fancy cigarette lighters and holders, the dressed-for-work and highly accessorized female garb, plaid wallpaper, matching pink bras, girdles and garters, and men’s pajamas capture the era’s aesthetics of femininity and masculinity. Visually, the series also takes its cues from the era’s advertising, celebrating a life of martinis, shiny cars and nuclear families, while signaling the clear hierarchies that ruled relationships between sexes, races and workers.
A viewing of a single episode can you leave you breathless — not just because of the deftly done narrative but the clouds of cigarette smoke and drunkenness that are part of virtually every scene. The series takes place in the time when lung cancer and coronary rates were shooting up, but no one outside the medical establishment really cared. The men drink scotch all day long, and libate noon and evening with martinis to demonstrate their status and manliness. Weekends, they take the six pack with them to the garage to do their chores. The women sip wine to fill the lonely evenings, except when they dress up and join the men in the city for cocktails and dinner, and on Sunday mornings when rounds of Bloody Marys are consumed with the New York Times.
Food is mostly only referred to obliquely. “I’ll make you kids a grilled cheese sandwich,” says the lead wife. There is a glimpse of meat loaf and of a waiter making a Caesar salad. The series has not yet addressed it, but it is also set in the time of mass-produced convenience food. Anyone remember TV dinners? And it got much worse than that. Dupont’s old motto, “Better Things for Better Living…Through Chemistry,” captured the mind set. It as an optimistic, but flawed, point of view.
My Italian mother moved to Washington, D.C. just before the JFK assassination. She had lived in Trieste, Rome, Paris and I’m sure never imagined the wasteland that was American food culture in those days. What she had to live with was the oh so modern convenience of the supermarket. What the trade off worth it?
Young folks, keep in mind there were no artisanal bakeries, no farmer’s markets, no Starbucks at that time. No arugula, no basil, no baby mixed greens. No quinoa.
A woman who had lived her whole live with twice a day visits to the local bakery had to settle for Wonder Bread. Her childhood had been spent on the Adriatic Sea, where fishermen sold their daily catch on the dock but now fish (if you could find it fresh) was sissy health food and a sign you could not afford that emblem of middle class prosperity, red meat. Parmesan cheese came in a green can. Fruits and vegetables, picked before ripening, were inedible. Yogurt had to be special ordered from the milkman and came in only two flavors, plain and strawberry.
She must have felt doubly trapped not to be able to prepare her favorite foods, to be deprived of myriad treasured flavors, and overall of an essential expression of the refined European culture of which she was definitely a part.
In the 1970s, a few years away from the welcome shifts that would appear in American food tastes and that are still underway, she and I visited France. At a vegetable market in Menton in July, she saw zucchini flowers and was desperate to try them for the first time in decades. For her, that sight was one of the highlights of the trip. For me, it meant for perhaps the first time I understood the importance of food to culture, to well-being, to self and to an ability to marvel at what nature has to offer.