Consider the Social Class of the Lobster

January 26, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Food isn’t about nutrition,” wrote Robin Hanson some years ago (here). But it’s also not about taste, or at least not all about taste. Which foods we prize and which we despise also depends on what the food says about the people who consume it, especially their social status.

In the first episode of “The Gilded Age,” the Russells decide to throw an elegant dinner party. They are newly rich, very rich, and new to the neighborhood, Fifth Avenue at 61st St., where they have built a mansion. Mrs. Russell thinks that the dinner, along with generous donations to old-money charities, will bring the Russells entree into “society.”

She is wrong. Old money snubs her. The Russells prepare for 200 guests. Nobody comes.

Like an officer reviewing the troops, she walks past the tables laden with elegant foods.

“What will you do with it all?” asks her husband.
“Church. Get the kitchen staff to box it up and send a message in the morning to the Charity Organization Society. Ask them to collect it.”
“I don’t know what the poor of New York will make of lobster salad.”
He’s wrong. The poor would remember the times not so long ago when lobster was a food for common people, not a delicacy for the elite.

Lobster, as David Foster Wallace mentions in passing in his famous essay, was not always a delicacy. In the early days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, lobster was trash food. It was fed to prisoners. Two hundred fifty years later, the social status of lobster hadn’t improved. In the 1870s, indentured servants sued, successfully, so that their masters could feed them lobster no more than three times a week. [From a blogpost of two years ago, here.]

“The Gilded Age” begins in 1882, which is possibly the inflection point in the lobster trajectory from prole trash to pricey treat. The sites I’ve looked at say imprecisely that the change started “in the 1880s,” so it could have been any time in that decade. I would have loved it if the show had used this history to a culinary dimension to the conflict. The Russells, with their antennae tuned to the latest in fashions, have their groaning board include the new hot item — lobster. Meanwhile in the mansion across the street, old-money Agnes Van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) learns of this and comments to Ada (Cynthia Nixon), “And did you hear? Lobster. Indeed. Does she really expect that anyone in society would tolerate being served lobster?”

Being the Ricardos — Who’s Gaslighting Who?

January 17, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

The most frequently viewed post on this blog by far is the original one about language anachronisms on “The  Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (here). Google “Maisel anachronism,” and this blog will be near the top of the list.  “Mad Men” too sometimes dotted the1950s landscape with twentieth-century language. (Blog posts are here and here).

This month, television once again took us back to the 1950s with “Being the Ricardos,” and once again the script has language that sounds much too new. We’re not talking about TV fluff where historical precision hardly matters — sitcoms like “The Godldbergs,” set in the 1980s but with a writers’ room stocked with writers who in that decade were barely toddling. But “Being the Ricardos,” written and directed by Aaorn Sorkin, asks to be taken seriously, and Sorkin has a great ear for dialogue.

Yet he gives us this moment in the writers’ room when Madelyn, one of the writers, has suggested a story line that involves Ricky cheating on his taxes. Desi, who is honest about his own taxes, says that his TV character too would never cheat on his taxes. Another writer, Bob, thinks the cheating plot element would work. “It’s very relatable. Everyone does.”

In 1955, things were not “relatable.”  

A few seconds later, Sorkin’s script has this:

Her process? People did not have processes in the 1950s. They just did things the way they did them. They weren’t relatable either. Here are the graphs from Google nGrams, which tallies the frequency of words in books. Both these terms come into wide use only well after the 1950s. True, it takes time for a trendy word to go from everyday talk to a published book, but the lag time is not forty years.

Then there’s gaslighting. Gas as a way of lighting streets and rooms came in around 1800, and that was the gaslight referred to in the 1944 movie, which was set in the late 19th century. Gaslight was a noun. The current usage — as a verb meaning to try to make someone doubt their own true perceptions — didn’t appear until the 21st century.

In “Being the Ricardos,” although Desi does not cheat on his taxes, he may be doing another kind of cheating. Lucy suspects, Desi denies and suggests that she is unreasonably suspicious, that the problem is in her mind.

In the 1950s, people talked about lying and cheating, Men might suggest say their wives were imagining things, might even suggest that they see a psychiatrist, and wives might see all that as a baseless ploy. But nobody called it gaslighting.

Is Sorkin trying to get us to think that 65 years ago people talked about their process and whether something was relatable? Is Sorkin gaslighting us?

An American, Still Very American, in Paris

January 8, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Emily in Paris” is really about the clothes. I feel a bit irrelevant offering sociological commentary.( For snark regarding the clothes in Season One, see Buzzfeed.)

In Season One, Emily was more or less America personified, and the show’s creators, presumably with American audiences in mind, were all but waving the Stars and Stripes and shouting, “We’re Number One.” Emily, with no knowledge of French culture and customs and unable to speak a word of French, nevertheless manages to outperform the stodgy French on their home field. Emily’s pluck, optimism, and openness, and her new Instagrammatic approaches to marketing triumph over the measured, traditional French way of doing things. (Earlier blog post on Emily are here and here.)

Having established the superiority of American culture, the show can move on in Season Two to matters of the heart, which are more complicated, for while Emily could solve marketing problems with snap of her smartphone, the conflicts of romance are mostly internal. The basic problem is that Emily, in one passionate encounter, has fallen for Gabriel and he for her. But he already has a girlfriend, Camille, whose family company is a client of the marketing firm Emily works for.

In European movies, women in love follow their whims, often without regard for common sense and without planning out the consequences, especially the consequences for others. Men can only try to understand. The classic example is “Jules and Jim,” where a woman’s capriciousness brings the men who love her heartbreak and even death.

Emily tries to be more practical. If her feelings for Gabriel cause difficulties for him and for Camille, she will try to suppress those feelings. She agrees to  a formal agreement with Camille that since Gabriel is the problem, they both agree not to be romantically involved with him. Camille of course has no intention of honoring that pact. It’s hard to imagine a woman in a French movie imposing a bureaucratic solution to restrain feelings of love. But to the American Emily, it seems like a practical, workable solution.

The show is on Emily’s side her. Camille is selfish and scheming, petty and vindictive. She insistst that a business meeting be conducted in French, leaving Emily unable to understand what’s going on. “Emily in Paris” wants us to see her as nasty for this, even though French is the native language of everyone at the table save Emily. Camille, who has just discovered that Emily had sex with her boyfriend, wants only that she not be seduce him away, but in “Emily in Paris” she is the bad guy.

The show makes a deliberate point of the inability of Americans to think accurately about affairs of the heart. After the meeting, Emily’s colleague Luc takes her to film, “ a classic,” he tells her. It’s “Jules and Jim” (the title of this episode is “Jules and Em”). As they talk briefly about the film afterwards, Emily says, ‘If Catherine and Jim had only waited for each other’s letters to arrive before sending another one, there would have been less confusion, and they all would have ended up together.” And she’s right. If “Jules and Jim” had been an American film, it would have had a pragmatic, understandable, and happy ending.