I’m a re- person. I like to reread books, rewatch movies, TV shows, all of that. I don’t wallow in the past, but when the pickings are slim, sometimes I’ll decide to rewatch “Mad Men,” and out of guilt for the indulgence I look for something different to pay attention to, critically.
This time? Food.
I often reflect on the difference in American meals over the course of my lifetime, how much richer, more varied, larger they was when I was a kid. I don’t need to tell you that, in my part of the Midwest, a salad used to be iceberg lettuce and a tomato the approximate flavor of cardboard. Dressing was made by Kraft. Vinaigrette was unheard of; if you were that kind of weirdo, a waitress would bring you twin cruets of salad oil and mystery vinegar.
You were there. You remember. Needless to say, it’s different now. In fact, food has emerged as the new religion, given outsize importance in American life. But “Mad Men,” with its famous attention to detail, is pretty close to how I remember ’60s food. It’s interesting to take note of.
First of all, the show takes place in New York, and as New York has always been, it was ahead of Columbus, Ohio. So, early on, when Don and Betty are in a hotel room, and she’s ordering room service, she asks for “crab meat in an avocado.” Crab meat was fancy food, but I don’t think I even knew what an avocado was until I was in college. The Drapers throw a fancy dinner party, and Betty is enormously proud of her trip-around-the-world menu, including “rumaki from Japan” (remember that) and gazpacho (nope). They go out to dinner, and the appetizer is a glass of tomato juice, served in a small glass in a small dish. Definitely remember that; it was standard in steakhouses into my college years.
There’s more. You want to know about the obesity problem? Look at the sandwiches dispensed from the coffee cart – they’re two pieces of standard grocery bread, and barely a filling. (Although everyone eats donuts and “buttered rolls” for breakfast in the office, and that doesn’t seem to show on anyone.) Don walks in the door on a summer night and Betty asks, “Hot or cold?” The choices: Swedish meatballs or chicken salad. Either one will serve for dinner, with Ritz crackers.
People just didn’t pay that much attention to what they ate, compared to today. But the classics then are classics today. Roger asks a waiter for “iceberg wedges with bleu cheese and bacon,” aka the wedge salad. Joy the lotus-eater tells Don about the Mexican food on his plate: “It’s a pepper, stuffed with cheese.” Chile rellano. Don drinks like a fish, but doesn’t eat very much, which made his choice of a late-night snack, corned beef hash with an egg, a little puzzling, but maybe that’s how he endures – fatty midnight meals to coat the stomach for all that drinking during the day.
The late-decade pivot to fast food comes when the firm guns for the Burger Chef account, a place I remember well – not exactly a regional chain, but it never caught on too widely. Didn’t they flame-broil their burgers? I liked them, although now I know the flavor probably came from a test tube. My mother worked full-time, unusual for our neighborhood, but fast food was a rare treat, saved for when my father was out of town on business. We preferred Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips.
Anyway, we’re in season three now, and I think I’m going to slow the pace a bit. I want to leave for France (fingers still crossed; pass sanitaire still hanging in the balance) with an empty stomach.
I leave you with what got me thinking of all this: A page from one of my mother’s most-used cookbooks (although we never had this). “The American Woman’s Cookbook” is a real time capsule, and I’ve enjoyed paging through it, if not actually cooking from it. It’s a reminder that grocery stores weren’t always lavish cathedrals of food, and sometimes you had to make a meal out of what you could get your hands on:
Happy Wednesday. May all work weeks be four days.