Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Convenience Food and The American Dream: Don Draper Knows All
How did this happen? How? How did something like Jell-O (tm) salad get classified as something that was desirable, or even edible? How did we as Americans start cooking with condensed soup? Why the convenience revolution? Wait. I fucking love convenience. So why am I complaining?
Many years ago à propos of nothing, a very good friend asked me, "Did your mother cook with soup?" I looked at her blankly for a moment, and then replied, "Yes. My mother cooked with soup." Apparently, her boyfriend's mother did not, and he was horrified when she explained what she meant (side note: his family were very rich WASPs from Connecticut and, though their ways are foreign to me, after having met his mother, I'm willing to bet she did, in fact, cook with soup). Convenience foods are sneered at. They are processed, unnatural, and most damning of all, low class. We jeer at repulsive recipes like Monterey Soufflé Salad and Jellied Bouillon With Frankfurters - and rightfully so, as both hot dogs and seafood should be segregated from gelatin products forever. But I think it might be time to reappraise convenience in light of their interesting historical context.
Okay. Picture this. You have to make dinner for your family. If you are super lucky, it is a family of three or four. Even more lucky (and even more unlikely) you have servants to do this for you, or at least to assist. You must make sure the stove is fired up with either coal or wood (depending on where or when you live), you must go to the market and buy your food as the refrigerator has not yet been invented. If the ice box has, you must make sure you have actual ice to keep things cold. If you live in a city, the ice man comes around and you better hope you can afford to pay him. If you don't live in a city, I honestly have no idea. You might have to kill, pluck, gut, or skin something. Because of the whole refrigeration issue things like cooking fat might be rancid. Nothing (or almost nothing) comes in packages, greatly limiting your meal planning choices. If you have gone completely mad and decide you want a yummy congealed salad (the unappetizing name for salads made out of gelatin before the ascendancy of Jell-O(tm)), it would involve the boiling of bones and feet of dead animals. You may want to review the aspic section of Julie & Julia to get an idea. Basically, the whole cooking process was a messy, difficult, time intensive nightmare.
Throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries various products and appliances were invented and marketed, making the whole business infinitely easier and quicker. Part of the quid pro quo of what we usually now jokingly refer to as "labor saving", was the emancipation of women. Wives have always been stuck doing the endless, time consuming, sucky tasks, and things like the blender, frozen TV dinners, instant mashed potatoes, and those handy little packets of Jell-O(tm) must have been just great. The dawn of a new era. Middle class housewives now had the time to take a yoga class. Go back to college. March against the war. Or, like, shop. See, good for everyone and prosperity reigned.
So, what happened to our new Eden made of freedom and astronaut food? The natural food movement happened, hippies happened. Sally Draper came home from Stanford and turned her little nose up at the Ambrosia Salad of her childhood. She worried about her children eating vegetables covered in pesticides. She worried about big agro and corn subsidies. And suddenly, people were plucking and gutting and cooking with whole grains, but this time around all the best people were doing so, and the lower middle class and the working poor were eating convenience food that they would take home on their way back from ten hour shifts at Wal-Mart as they couldn't afford and didn't have the time to prepare the grass finished beef or the organic spinach covered in sand that Sally brought home to her children after volunteering at the co-op.
One day, Sally had her father over for dinner, and after chowing elegantly down on the lime marinated grilled free range chicken breast, quinoa pilaf and wilted bitter greens, he lit up a cigarette ("Daddy. The kids."). He stepped outside and looked at the Manhattan skyline as the sun went down.
"Free range." He said.
"You bought free range chicken. Why?"
"The antibiotics. And fewer chemicals. It's less cruel."
"That's what everyone says when asked that question. Less cruel. Fewer antibiotics. But do you know exactly what free range chickens are?"
"The first person who uttered the phrase "free range chicken" aloud was someone like me, and he did so in a pitch meeting. I'm sure someone suggested "more humane" and someone else said "less cruel" and lots of other people spoke about mangled feet and mass production and about how this product was different. Then, someone in the room, someone like me, remembered that advertising isn't about negatives. It's not even about specifics. It's about the feelings it causes in the consumer. It's about happiness. You say fewer chemicals -"
"There are fewer chemicals -"
"Maybe. But that doesn't matter. You bought this chicken because it made you feel better about yourself. Buying this chicken made you feel, just a tiny bit, like you were a part of a lost America, an America -"
"Daddy, are you drinking again?"
"Ha ha. Think about the phrase 'Free Range'. What does it make you think of? What do you picture inside your head? The great expanses of the West. Cattle. Mountains. A lost vision of farms and settlers and America as we want it to be, an America as it should be. A John Ford vision of a past that never was. That's what 'free range' means to people. That's why people feel good about buying this ordinary, everyday chicken, that was raised in an ordinary farm upstate. Maybe they use fewer chemicals, maybe it is less cruel, that's fine. But "free range" doesn't actually mean anything. It's no different than calling a drink mix 'space age'. They're just words that make you feel better about yourself, and about the world we live in which is cruel, which uses chemicals, in which things die. The words 'free range' make us forget that - for the few short minutes between when you read the label, and when you hand your credit card over to the checkout girl"
"And the product is far more expensive, which lends an air of exclusivity to this pioneer dream. It never fails."
Incidentally, a new season of Mad Men premiers on AMC this Sunday, July 25.