Last weekend was a nostalgia rush and all things considered I prefer yesterday’s madness to today’s. More challenge, more style. First, I took in Julie & Julia, the film biopic of the great American TV cook Julia Child set in the sixties. The lobster scene brought back my own ghastly attempts at being a murderess. “You can keep live lobsters in the refrigerator at around 37 degrees for a day or two,” Mrs. Child advised us all on PBS—now there’s a thought—and after the kill, “locate the stomach sac with your fingers, twist out and discard . . .”
Something of a shame, I thought, as Meryl Streep’s Julia Child plunges her knife into the writhing lobster, that she and Martha Stewart couldn’t have met, two splendid women wielding cleavers—probably on one another as they wrestled for camera position. On Sunday came the premiere of Mad Men’s third season about advertising men in the early sixties, when everyone smoked, wore uptight clothes and political correctness was being on the right rather than the left.
Okay. I know this stuff. True, as young women we did wear girdles, garter belts and stockings as a matter of course rather than buying them from Frederick’s of Hollywood for a giggle. Some respectable people did wrinkle their noses a bit when encountering Jews or “Negroes” and I distinctly remember in 1964 purchasing an original Relax-A-Cizor, a machine which in the series is said to have the pleasant but unspoken side effect of giving women orgasms. Hello? All I can remember is the nuisance of putting gel on its little body pads and switching on an electric current that made muscles twitch—which, had it worked, strikes me as a more civilized way of toning than today’s hanging-about-fitness-centres in latex. Had I known it was a pleasure machine, I would have stuck at it much longer.
A crucial ingredient of those times, overlooked by the producers of Mad Men who clearly did not grow up female in those decades, was gelatin. My first crush was Donnie Gill who lived on the Roxborough housing estate in Hamilton. Incredibly, he was utterly unresponsive. By summer I had switched to a dark Jewish boy from Westdale, an address that required serious measures. I purchased packets of gelatin. I would dip my crinoline in the gucky mixture, dry it on the clothesline outside till it was stiff as a hooped skirt and go for it at the school dance. I would have killed to look like Betts in season one of Mad Men, whose crinolines would have made her a standout at any sock hop and whose cheerleader “goy” blondness would have got her swarms of the synagogue set.
By the late sixties, I was soaking packets of gelatin again, this time for Julia’s Orange Bavarian Cream during my stint as an East Side apartment Frau in Manhattan. Unlike Amy Adams in the film, I was unable to work my way through volume one of Julia’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I did manage a small kitchen fire on East 57th Street when a dishcloth too close to the stove irritatingly ignited upon grazing the stovetop and the vermouth I was reducing in the mirepoix for my Langue de Boeuf à l’Aigre-Douce. (Okay. I know this strains credibility but Julia said that boiled tongue was “supremely easy to do.”)
Does anyone else remember the Jack LaLanne fitness show at this time? You’d start the morning behind a kitchen chair carefully placed in front of the TV set. Jack, wearing a rather odd outfit with rolled sleeves to emphasize huge biceps and tight trousers curiously modest with no bumps where there ought to have been a real bundle, would urge us through four gentle half leg lifts and ask, “Ladies, have you thought about the food you eat?”
Then, you’d go out and buy the gelatin, heavy cream, brown sugar and cartloads of butter and go home to clarify it. God, the time I spent clarifying butter to Julia’s great roaring cry “You can’t have too much butter” and then getting up to face Jack LaLanne. I failed miserably at the quenelles, which simply would not bind and thought there might be a role for gelatin here too but life moved on.
I enjoy Mad Men and I loved the Julia Child film but it’s annoying to see one’s own times viewed as period pieces, with our manners and mores depicted as relics from some unenlightened age. A late episode of Mad Men last season condescendingly viewed the hysteria many had in preparing for doomsday as the Soviet Union’s ship sailed toward Cuba in the 1961 missile crisis. I’d like to know how the writers would have acted if they had lived through it as adults. Just what is the sane plan when facing annihilation in a nuclear war?
This happens to every generation I suppose. You become funny little people with ridiculous habits to be viewed for amusement by your grandchildren. My only compensation is to muse on the rich lode of bunk this current lot will give their chroniclers. The great fight against plastic bags, for example, should be a hoot for one episode and the prudishness over displays of child nudity from a society showing off their thonged underwear and deconstructed clothing at super-constructed prices a real riot of hypocrisy. Of course, none of this will come to light for a few hundred years if one of the other idiocracies triumph and Western society wraps itself up in burkas. Who knows which set of lunatics will feature in the historical fiction of 2060? It’s a toss-up.