I even cooked in my Mad Men days

Don and Betty Draper in Mad Men: Amiel remembers buying the original Relax-A-Cizor exercise machine talked about on the show


I even cooked in my Mad Men daysLast 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.


I even cooked in my Mad Men days

  1. What is gelatin? Pardon my ignorance, I was born in the 1990s.

    • Look it up in the dictionary — I recommend m-w.com — and you'll realize your year of birth is no excuse for such ignorance!


  3. I always see people laughing at wedding photos from the '60s, '70s and '80s, but a lot of the brides looked beautiful and unique. Today, everyone is afraid of looking like a 'meringue' because they watched 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' – I'd be afraid of looking like every other Vera Wang wearing wannabe. I wouldn't pay good money for a plain white dress that resembled a silk tank top and full skirt.

  4. Oh Barbara,
    Thanks for the partial trip down memory lane. Yes, we wore girdles, nylons with seams, crinolines, saddle shoes and those darling little ballerina shoes, too. We went to church on Sundays, had sex but said we didn't. I never told even my best friend until the 90's. We read books like Five Smooth Stones, The Peter Principal and the life changing Betty Friedan. I cooked from The Joy of Cooking and those blasted little cook books from the church (I went then) to feed my family of five. My husband, three kids and me. Later we had Friday night appetizers and drinks with friends which often included steak tartare and manhattens. And yes, we all smoked. Well, we made it through. Thank you so much for the memories.

  5. I didn't find the Missile Crisis episode to be mocking or condescending– it seemed to portray genuine fear about annihilation. Also Ms. Amiel, just to point out– Julia Child and Martha Stewart did meet. Julia was on an episode of Living back in about 1998 or so. It was close to Christmas and they were side by side each making a croquembouche, and it was a bit cringe-worthy because Martha's was absolutely slender, conical, and perfect while Julia's was pretty lopsided and smushed. Kudos to the producers for not faking it with two perfect towers, though.

  6. I was born in 1966, but for a wedding gift in 1962 or 63 my mom I swear had those same gold leaf frosted hiball glasses. Even the old fashioned glasses. Everytime I watch Don drink from one it takes me back to those glasses in my mother's credenza.

  7. I totally agree about how tiresome it is when one's own time is remembered so very incorrectly. The fact that anyone fondly remembers the styles of the 80's is amazing. But I get tired of the girls who parade in their so called vintage clothes with modern additions like visible bra straps and tattoos and piercings that were non existent in those more refined times.

  8. Please don’t take this the wrong way, but no generation controls the way their descendants see them. Which is a nice check on their hubris.

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