A cheeseburger, fries and a chocolate milkshake: the iconic American meal. In times like these, as we approach the end of an era of American consumerism, an older and more traditional aesthetic arises in popular culture. Shows like Mad Men have rekindled our desire for the trappings of a world where men are unfailingly charming, women are always perfectly coiffed, and rigid social hierarchies make life seem somehow “simpler” to the uncritical eye.
I recently went to the neighborhood where a good friend grew up and thought I had stepped back in time to before that period of intense social change and deceptively tranquil Americana represented so vividly by Mad Men. We went for burgers, and sitting in Top Notch diner with all kinds of people from the surrounding neighborhoods, I found immense comfort in the ritual of ketchup, mustard, tomato, iceburg lettuce, bread and butter pickles. The patty, not too thin or thick and covered with perfectly melted cheese, the white bread bun. Splitting a milkshake that is almost too thick to drink with a straw, but not quite. Despite my deeply ambivalent relationship with icons of American culture, especially those which glorify a type of American identity rooted firmly within segregation, inequality and oppression (as that of the 1950’s and 60’s undoubtedly was), I love this meal. I love the simplicity and ease, the lack of pretension in its presentation and honest enjoyment.
The neighborhood, known as Beverly, is all old Chicago; green lawns, a soda fountain, children playing ball in the street. There are even train tracks to be from the wrong side of, hinting at the unrest that socioeconomic and racial tensions still generate. Segregation is very much alive in this idyllic slice of the American dream, pointing to the deceptive nature of the American ideal in our collective memory. In our current nationwide and multi-demographic infatuation with the Don Draper mystique, we forget that not all of us could participate in that supposed idyll the first time around. In fact, the vast majority of us were excluded from the iconic privileges of American success. The unfortunate part is that despite our forward march in time and the concrete advantages brought by the intervening years, those of us originally excluded are still very much on the outside of whatever that American dream imagery is promising.
In these times of crisis the image speaks to our desire for definition, for clarity and stability, but it belies the very real messiness of life and ignores the nasty ways society maintains its hegemonies. But while I enjoy my perfect cheeseburger, grilled onions and all, and while I sip a velvety chocolate shake in the company of a good friend, I am powerless to resist a certain suspension of disbelief.