Sunday, November 11, 2007

Feeding times

After watching a local newscast on Thursday night, I made the mistake of leaving the television on for "warmth" (i.e., for light and noise while working in an otherwise empty house). I virtually never watch prime-time network television, so I found myself at first surprised and then appalled by the barrage of commercials exhorting the viewer to eat out or buy pre-packaged food to eat at home. Convenience and taste were the advantages touted again and again and again — as if driving to a fast-food outlet to eat is in fact convenient, as if a plastic bag of frozen meat and vegetables is in fact superior to what a modestly-skilled cook could put together from scratch. I assume that these commercials were running in prime-time to capitalize upon whatever dissatisfactions and frustrations viewers might be feeling about their evening meals. I hit the remote-control after hearing "Better than what Mom makes!"

My prime-time experience is what prompted me to look closely at a four-page insert for Sara Lee brands in today's Parade magazine. Page one: Norman Rockwell's 1943 Freedom from Want, with some ingratiating text added:

Ah, the good ol' days. When there was all the time in the world to create picture-perfect holidays. And when families could enjoy every meal together, not just the big holiday feasts.

Sure isn't how things look today!
No siree, Bob. Today's world is what we see on the next two pages. Sara Lee's website gives a condensed version:

[Click for larger image.]

What I find most telling in this Photoshopped nightmare is the absence of relationships. Contrast Rockwell: people are looking at one another, acknowledging their shared joy in a ritual. In Sara Lee's world, everyone does his or her own thing. Grandma and Grandpa, the only people who can possibly be construed as looking at someone else (at Mom, perhaps, and frazzled Dad), find their smiles unreturned. It seems that they've even had to let themselves in, which (comically and unintentionally) compounds the scene's awfulness. And notice: the kitchen table, minus chairs, functions not as a gathering place but as a surface on which to display food. Sara Lee gives us not a scene of feasting but of feeding. The only hunger here, as the T-shirt at the center of this scene suggests, is in one's stomach.

Did people really have "all the time in the world" to prepare holiday meals back in the "good ol' days"? I think that they made the time, to do things that were important to them. As Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, points out, we've figured out how to make the time to spend two or three hours a day on line. I remember that my grandmother used to start the Thanksgiving cooking at six or seven in the morning.

If you're wondering who the self-satisfied young man in the T-shirt is: according to the Parade version of this scene, his name is Jake, and his hockey team is at the door, hungry for hot dogs. Note to hockey team: Go away; we have company. Note to Jake: Take off your headphones, put down your wiener, and go say hello to your grandparents. They're not going to be around forever, and they've come a long way to see you.
Related reading
No time for cooking (Michael Pollan on cooking, via Fire and Knowledge)
Total Meals On Line (Sara Lee)

comments: 2

thalkowski said...

I saw that same advert in my sunday morning paper - a grim thing to wake up to - and in its own way more informative about contemporary life than all the rest of the newspaper combined.

Note in the ad the strange, almost medieval flattened perspective - each actor is in their own island, cut off from each other, surrounded by their objects of desire. Is this the 3rd or 4th circle of Dante's hell?

Michael Leddy said...

What a great way to read this image, Timothy. I'll vote for the fourth circle; the wastefulness of the display on the left suggests prodigality to me.