Boomer Families Embraced Meals Cooked in Electric Frying Pans

Mister Boomer’s mother, like a lot of mothers of boomers, was all for time-saving devices in the kitchen. Somewhere in the late ’50s or early ’60s, she saw one of Mister B’s aunts cooking with an electric frying pan, and she was convinced it was the appliance for her. Mister Boomer does not know the exact way her electric frying pan entered the house. It may have been a prize choice from one his father’s company golf tournaments, or she may have picked it up with trading stamps. Those two methods were the main sources of small appliances in the Boomer household.

The electric skillet had its origins in the 1910s, when Westinghouse introduced the first one. It was more of a hotplate for warming than cooking food. Sunbeam began selling actual electric frying pans in 1953 under the name Automatic Frypan. The unit was made of cast aluminum and was a rounded square shape for maximum cooking area. A matching cover was included. The electric elements were sealed in the bottom, so the entire pan part of the unit could be immersed in water for cleaning. Sunbeam released a stainless steel model a year later.

Mister Boomer does not recall the exact brand of his mother’s electric frying pan — it may have been Sunbeam or Westinghouse — but what he does remember is that the control unit was a separate black plastic square that plugged into the side of the pan. The unit had a dial that was marked off in degrees like an oven dial.

In a very short time, it became Mister B’s mom’s go-to device for cooking family meals, especially for braising. His mom used the appliance so often that it rarely left the kitchen counter. It resided next the the family’s beige-plastic radio that sported a burn mark from when his mother rested a lit cigarette on the top while she talked on the phone — which was on the adjoining wall.

Mister B recalls his mom making liver and onions, Chicken Cacciatore, short ribs and cabbage, pork chops and chuck steak with her electric frying pan. For her, the electric frying pan was the ultimate in one-pot cooking. Mister B watched his mother make Chicken Cacciatore many times. To the best of his recollection, here is how she made her version. The beauty of the recipe, if there was one, was that everything could be tossed into the pan and braised, with little or no attention.

4 packages of chicken thighs and drumsticks, cut into chunks
Vegetable oil
1 onion, cut into slices
1 green pepper, cut into chunks
1 stick celery, cut into chunks
1/3 to 1/2 bottle of Port wine
Small can of tomato sauce
Tablespoon of tomato paste

Mister B’s mom would heat up a little vegetable oil in the pan and let the chicken brown while she cut up the vegetables. As she finished each, she tossed it into the pan. When the onions became translucent, she added the can of tomato sauce and the tomato paste, along with a healthy dose of Port wine. She liked to drink Port, so there was always a bottle in the house. It was inexpensive since the brand she had on hand was always made in the state in which the Boomer family resided.

At that point she’d lower the temperature on the dial (was it 250º? less?), put the cover on it, and walked away. An hour or so later, the alcohol was cooked out, the chicken was falling-off-the-bone soft and ready for the family. Sometimes she would serve it with rice, but more often than not, white Wonder bread was the accompaniment.

Her cast iron pan was still the item used for Sunday morning French toast, pancakes, eggs and creamed toast, but if braised meat was on the menu, the electric frying pan got the job.

Did your mom have an electric frying pan, boomers? If so, what was her favorite thing to cook in it?

Boomers Wondered, “Where’s My Jet Pack?”

As the world of science touched our lives during the Space Race, a vision of personal flight long imagined in science fiction entered the scene as a real possibility: the jet pack, or more accurately, the rocket pack, since it did not have a jet-propelled engine. A rocket pack was a device worn by an individual that contained fuel tanks and control mechanisms to propel the figure, in science fiction, across the skies.

The first rocket pack was invented by a Russian inventor, Aleksandr Andreyev, in 1919. He imagined a liquid fuel mix of methane and oxygen as his propellent, and affixed wings that were three feet long to the back of the device for stability in flight. A patent was issued to him years later, but his device was never built.

The idea was constantly cropping up through the years. The Nazis tested versions of flying platforms during WWII, but their plans fortunately did not result in operational devices. Various companies tested versions of rocket packs in the 1950s, and the U.S. Army was interested in possible military uses for reconnaissance, passing over mine fields, crossing rivers, ascending steep inclines, etc. The government contracted Aerojet General to develop and test a rocket pack, which the Army dubbed a Small Rocket Lift Device (SRLD). In 1960, the Army discovered that Bell Aerosystems was testing a rocket pack (which they called a rocket belt), and shifted their funding over to them. Bell’s version used a propellent made of a hydrogen peroxide mixed with a bit of nitrogen.

Testing was well underway between 1960 and 1965, first with trained test pilots, then, at the Army’s suggestion, by an untrained pilot. Bill Suitor, age 19 at the time, was hired to join the team of pilots. Between 1965 and 1969, the team executed 3,000 flights with a perfect safety record. While successfully getting its pilots airborne, the duration of each flight maxed out at 21 seconds by the mid-60s. Short flight duration coupled with expensive engineering and high fuel costs caused the Army to scrap its program. Bell continued to demonstrate the device at air shows and state fairs, so it piqued the imagination of many boomers along the way.

Boomers had watched episodes of Rocketman on TV and already wanted to fly with their own rocket pack. As if rocket pack fever wasn’t enough, James Bond entered the mix in the opening sequence of Thunderball (1965). Our man 007 made his getaway courtesy of a Bell Aerospace rocket belt. His stunt double was none other than Bill Suitor.

Mister Boomer recalls seeing a Glad garbage bag commercial on TV in the 1960s where the Man from Glad flies in with a rocket pack to rescue the woman struggling with an inferior trash bag. Despite his memory, he was unable to verify this memory online.

Today the rocket pack is alive and well, with several companies producing versions with various forms of propellant, and individual inventors have created their own devices with mixed results. Two practical applications did arise from the rocket pack idea, though: today astronauts use a similar device for space walks. The NASA device is a direct descendant of the Bell rocket belt. Enterprising inventors realized that if they could figure our a way to keep a fuel supply coming to the belt, fly time could be greatly enhanced. They found a way to pump water to the propulsion unit, and the water jet pack was invented. These devices propel a person, tethered to to the pump unit, above and around a body of water. Variations on the device include one that resembles a skateboard, and others that act like individual “jet shoes.” A recreational rental market has cropped up in several tourist-centric locations around the globe.

Did you want a jet pack, boomers?

Mister Boomer Tips His Hat to Elon Musk & SpaceX

When carmaker and space entrepreneur Elon Musk was born in 1971, the Space Race was long over; the U.S. was declared the underdog victor when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon in July of 1969. Interest in manned missions to space peaked around that time, but support for continuing manned space exploration was bolstered by the introduction of the first Space Shuttle in 1976. Appropriately christened “Enterprise,” it was named after the boomer-favorite spaceship on the TV show, Star Trek. For the first time, boomers could see a spaceship that could fly into orbit and land back on Earth, ready for another flight.

Deep budget cuts to the Space Program and a public that no longer stopped whatever they were doing to watch rocket launches — like we did during the 1960s — made it difficult to maintain an ambitious program to “boldly go where no one has gone before.” When the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after take-off in January 1986, it became evident that progress from here on out was going to be slow and deliberate.

The International Space Station missions (1998 to present) kept our toes in the water, but many boomers, like Mister Boomer, longed for the thrill of big missions where brave men and women zipped across the universe the way we had seen in the TV shows and movies of our youth. Fast forward to February 6, 2018, when Elon Musk’s SpaceX team launched the Heavy Falcon rocket from the same Cape Canaveral launchpad that had propelled NASA astronauts to the moon, rekindling the hopes and imaginations of the Boomer Generation who sat on the edge of their seats while watching the space launches, from the earliest manned Mercury missions that began in 1961 to landing on the moon, as President Kennedy had challenged, “before the end of the decade.” People had camped out for two days to watch the Heavy Falcon launch along the same highway where boomers and their families had watched the Apollo launches. This SpaceX three-booster system doubles the liftoff capacity of what current rockets can muster, expanding the payload possibilities for future missions.

To, as our sixties lingo would put it, blow our minds even more, the three Heavy Falcon booster rockets were not designed to fall off into the ocean, never to be used again. No, Musk’s company has spent the past decade engineering the booster rockets so that they land safely on Earth and are able to be refueled and used again. The two side boosters did just that, landing back at Cape Canaveral in a synchronized event that looked like something from a Buck Rogers episode. The largest booster, the center rocket, was supposed to land on a drone ship platform in the Atlantic ocean, but missed it by 100 meters. Preliminary reports say the rocket didn’t have enough remaining fuel to execute the landing maneuver.

As if that wasn’t enough, Mr. Musk had another surprise for us. The spacecraft that was launched by the Heavy Falcon boosters was intended to head for an orbit around Mars. When the nose cone of the craft opened, it revealed a red convertible Tesla Roadster with a mannequin in a spacesuit behind the wheel. As strains of David Bowie’s Life on Mars emanated from the car’s sound system, the mannequin — dubbed “Starman” by Musk — had his left arm resting on the car window while the right hand “steered” through space. The car’s electronic readout screen posted the message, “Don’t Panic,” and a copy of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was in the glove compartment. The latest reports say that Starman will miss his orbit trajectory for Mars, and is headed toward the Asteroid Belt. Sweet boomer dreams are made of this!

One week after the incredible SpaceX test of the Heavy Falcon rockets comes news that our government is poised to end funding of the International Space Station in 2024. Reports indicate a desire of the current Administration to turn it over to private industry. While boomers like Mister B might question the wisdom of such a decision, one can only hope that if privatization is the future of space exploration, the International Space Station won’t become a floating hotel with a certain president’s name on it, but rather placed in the hands of visionaries like Elon Musk. Think of the possibilities of building interplanetary craft in space instead of engineering bigger rockets to send the immense size and fuel supply that will be necessary for such travel directly from Earth. While you’re at it, Mister Musk, could you please begin the work on a Warp Drive, and oh, if we had a way to beam up to the Station, that would be super! To infinity and beyond!

What did you think of the SpaceX test launch, boomers? Did it remind you of the excitement we felt in the early days of the Space Program?

Boomers Did Chores by Hand

It’s fall, and that intrusive noise in the neighborhood indicates that leaf blower season is upon us. After a thoroughly unscientific survey of the people Mister Boomer knows, he came to the conclusion that the days we knew — of hand rakes and push brooms — appear to be over, replaced by machines that blow things from one place to another. In Mister B’s limited survey, not a single homeowner owned a rake, nor were they interested in buying one; yet all had a leaf blower. Is this a sign that rakes are headed for extinction in the average home, destined to be equipment needed only for a few lawn care professionals in the near future? Many communities are seeking to ban gas-powered models these days, due to the pollution factor, but there are plenty of electric and cordless models around to take their place.

In our boomer years, raking leaves brought opportunity to some of us, as we could make a dollar or two. For others, it was a chore to which they would have preferred some technological solution because the task was accomplished by hand. For others still, the raking part was the prelude to making piles to jump in and play. For Mister Boomer and his brother, it was a bit of all three. Once the family lawn had been raked, the Boomer Brothers enlisted the help of a couple of neighborhood boys in finding houses that had the most leaves on their property. A lot of the time, people would prefer to do it themselves or have their children do it, but occasionally, the boys were employed. The pay was not great — usually less than snow removal — but it was a way to generate some discretionary income as a preteen.

That got Mister Boomer thinking about things other than leaf raking we used to do by hand — especially chores — that are now replaced with some device. Here are a few that come to mind:

Vacuuming. Today’s busy Domestic Engineers (who could be any man, woman or child) increasingly don’t seem to want to bother with pushing a vacuum over carpets and floors, pretty much the way it had been done since the beginning of the twentieth century. Little by little, robot vacuums are replacing the hand vacuum for household use. What’s more, with the addition of one of those home assistant thingies, the robot vacuum can be be started with a voice command. An interesting side note is that pets — boomer cats and dogs — were frightened of vacuum cleaners. Now, as can be seen in numerous videos, cats jump on the robot models for free rides, and dogs see them as a new plaything. (Rosey the robot maid was so old-fashioned with her built-in hand vacuum!)

Grass mowing. Mister Boomer remembers his first lawn mowing experiences with a hand-push lawn mower. It was a real step up when his father purchased the family’s first gas-powered mower. A neighbor had an electric Sunbeam mower that Mister Boomer thought was pretty cool, but there was always the extension cord to manage. Flash forward to today, and Mister B watched a recent episode of This Old House where a backyard robot lawn mower was installed for the homeowner. The thing was programmed to mow the lawn autonomously, activated by a scheduled program day, pushing a start button or selecting a command from a smartphone app — anywhere in the world. When it finishes the job, it parks itself back in its charging station (can you say, “George Jetson?”).

Dishwashing. Dishwashers were certainly available throughout the boomer years, but Mister Boomer knew very few people who had one installed in their homes. The kids took turns doing the dishes in the kitchen sink, by hand, with a washcloth and dish soap. Mister Boomer’s mother tackled the pots and pans. The family did not have a dishwasher until the last years of the 1970s. Visions of the future always included a method for cleaning dishes to relieve women (then the exclusive keepers of the household) of the daily chore. (Jane Jetson could “do the dishes” with a push of a button). Today, it’s practically a deal-breaker for a young couple to buy a home that does not have a dishwasher.

Car windows. There are few hand gestures that so perfectly describe the action to which one asks another to perform. There is that one, of course, but Mister Boomer refers to, for example, the universal symbol of “check please” by clasping the index finger and thumb together and air-writing a signature in order to get a server to bring the check. For the Boomer Generation, one such hand signal — though technically not a “chore” — was the making of a fist and rotating it in a circular motion. Everyone knew that meant “roll down your car window.” Power windows were around in the boomer years and before, but again, Mister B’s family wasn’t one to have such lavish technologies. He recalls the first time he saw power windows, while riding in a neighbor’s car. His friend’s father fancied used Cadillacs, so while driving the boys one summer day, Mister B watched as his buddy pushed the lever and down came the back door window. In Mister Boomer’s mind, that defined luxury.

Almost all cars come standard with power windows these days. This begs the question, how will you ask someone in the next car if they have any Grey Poupon?

The quick adaption of leaf blowers to replace rakes, house robots and power-everything gadgets signal that we are indeed heading toward the Space Age Future we imagined and were promised in shows like The Jetsons. Yet Mister Boomer has to ask, wouldn’t a leaf vacuum be more practical?

What hand chores have you replaced with technology, boomers?

Boomers Feared the Automation Reaper

The recent buzz about the coming round of automation is instilling fear and dread in the hearts of some, while fulfilling the promised dreams of a future world for others. The interesting thing to Mister Boomer is, like Yogi Bera said back in the day, “It’s deja vu all over again.”

This has all happened before. During the Industrial Revolution, thousands of jobs were rendered unnecessary in the wake of technological advances in modern machinery. At first, small jobs were automated — the types of jobs that could save a small business owner, farmer or homemaker hours of work — and were generally well received. In other words, these devices were viewed as labor savers rather than labor subtracters.

When steam-powered machinery entered the industrial world, things changed on a larger scale. One of the industries where jobs were particularly impacted by the automation of the late 1800s was the textile industry. Suddenly a single machine could replace hundreds that were needed to man looms to create fabric. The response from workers was predictably negative. Workers revolted, protested, sabotaged machines, and even burned down plants. Yet in the end, the jobs were lost as new methods replaced old. As time went on, new technology created more jobs than it eliminated, and the country prospered.

The end of World War II brought a new wave of innovation to the forefront in American business, and with it a national optimism for a new future that gave rise to the Baby Boom. However, a rising unease gripped the country by the mid-50s as automation found its way into offices and factories. The prevailing fear was that machines would be replacing people, and jobs would be lost. Ironically, in the decade after the War, the unemployment rate had steadily declined.

The auto industry, as it had done in the 1920s, brought a great deal of automation to their processes. Between 1951 and ’53, the Ford Motor Company constructed new automated stamping plants for engine parts in Buffalo, New York and Cleveland, Ohio, that the company hoped would relieve the stress of the strikes, outages and union negotiations experienced in the 1940s. Ultimately, it was discovered that people were still a necessary part of that equation at those plants — the loading and unloading of machines, and therefore the production pace of the machinery, needed to be managed by humans after all. It would be a couple of decades before robotic loading and packing could fully enter the process. While experiencing fits and starts with their automated processes, the auto industry had greater success in automating the dirtiest jobs, such as spot welding and spray painting.


Desk Set (1957) with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Isn’t it amazing that they got the automated function correct, but the computer now fits on a desk?

Fear of mass unemployment was growing as the 1950s became the ’60s and the country entered 10 months of recession. Lawmakers in Washington heard the buzz and wondered aloud what, if anything, they should do about it. President Kennedy addressed the public’s concerns in a speech he gave on May 25, 1961. The president proposed “… a new Manpower and Training Development program to train or retrain several hundred thousand workers particularly in those areas where we have seen chronic unemployment as a result of technological factors and new occupational skills over a four-year period, in order to replace those skills made obsolete by automation and industrial change with the new skills which the new processes demand.” Most people will not remember this part of Kennedy’s speech, because it is the same one in which he laid down the challenge to American science and business for “… landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth …” within the decade.

By 1964, concerns of automation causing unemployment had not been assuaged. This led President Lyndon Johnson to sign a law creating a National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress. The Commission released its report in February of 1966.
In addressing the situation on behalf of the American worker, the Commission recommended several steps be taken. Among them:
• a program of public service employment to provide work for “hard-core unemployed” in useful community enterprises
• a guaranteed minimum income for every family
• removing obstacles to education, including universal high school education and up to 14 years of schooling guaranteed
• a national, computerized job-matching service to provide information to workers on where jobs were available
• relocation assistance for families

Boomers hit the job market in the swirl of this automation tempest, only to become the engineers of the automated future we are now facing. Some prognosticators are now forecasting that automation will affect nearly half of all workers in the next decade. Many jobs once held by boomers have long since been replaced by automation, with more sure to come. How many boomers were pinsetters in bowling alleys? switchboard operators? typesetters? keypunch operators? The list continues to grow.

Automation did not adversely affect Mister Boomer’s working life. He, like many boomers, became adaptable as computers entered various fields. In fact, he credits his embrace of the personal computer for his later-life work success. Now that he is anticipating retirement, Mister B looks back with nostalgia, but is very glad he doesn’t have to face a job market rife with the prospect of diminishing career opportunities.

How about you, boomers? Did automation play a role in your working life?

Boomers Watch As Things Disappear

When contemplating the rate at which things we once thought commonplace are disappearing, Mister Boomer was reminded of the lyrics to a song by Badfinger (1970):

If you want it, here it is, come and get it
But you’d better hurry ’cause it’s goin’ fast

You’d better hurry ’cause its going fast

Mister Boomer has chronicled the field of disappearing things before, including phone booths and TVs with dials. Here is an update to add to the list:

Steering Wheels
Unlike the flying cars we were promised in our youth, the driverless car is becoming a reality faster than many boomers could ever dream. Now word comes from the Ford Motor Company of their plans to start production on an autonomous vehicle in 2020! Cars may not be disappearing any time soon, but over the next decade cars with steering wheels and pedals will. That means boomers who probably learned how to drive on a car with no power steering will now live long enough to see cars on the road without a driver — and no need for a steering wheel.

Wallets with change pockets
For decades, women’s wallets came equipped with a change pocket, and many men’s wallets did, too. Mister Boomer’s very first wallet had a leather change pocket built in. The problem these days is, of course, that young people do not carry change. It may drive Mister Boomer crazy to see a Millennial pay for a pack of gum with a debit card, but that is the way our society is heading. To be fair, in our day a package of gum was a nickel or dime; today it’s over a dollar. We may not only see change pockets and change disappear, but paper money as well.

Postcards
When people were off seeing the U.S.A. in their Chevrolet in the decades before the Internet, e-mail and social media, they sent postcards to friends and family to tell them, “Wish you were here.” The cards were individually handwritten and stamped with the proper postcard postage, then whisked on their way courtesy of the U.S. Post Office. Sometimes the sender could return home before the postcards arrived, but it was a normal practice to send and receive postcards to/from family and friends when traveling. Some people sent holiday postcards rather than deal with envelopes; they were cheaper, too. Now, they are disappearing because with a click a message, photo or video can be sent to anyone in the world, no stamp necessary.

Celebrity Autographs
Since the dawn of celebrity, when people saw their larger-than-life stars, there is only one request they would make of them — an autograph. Many boomers will recall their mothers and some fathers having autograph books designed just for the that purpose, and some boomers carried on the tradition. Now, what people want from celebrities is a selfie more than an autograph. A selfie plays better in the show-and-tell social media landscape, much better than an “I got so-and-so’s autograph today!” message.

CDs
Boomers saw 8-track tapes come and go, then cassette tapes, then the decline and fall of vinyl records (even though vinyl is on a bit of a comeback tour right now). CDs were a latecomer to the music party, and are now disappearing. Music is easily downloaded or  listened to on any number of devices. The CD, we’ve come to learn, is not as stable a medium as vinyl records were, so many have already degraded to the point of being unplayable. Can you say “planned obsolescence?”

Personal Ownership
The shared economy is upon us. For many years now a plethora of boomers have accepted the fact that they would lease their cars instead of buying them. The reasons are simple: lease payments are often cheaper than ownership payments and the cost of operation can be lower, too. With the advent of car services available at the click of a button and driverless vehicles on the horizon, are car ownership days on the wane? We’ll know which way the wind blows in the next decade.

Boomers loved buying records. We went out to get 45 RPMs and albums from our favorite artists on the day they were released. And the beauty is, now that we are approaching our old age, many of us still have those records. Boomers watched vinyl get replaced by cassettes played on a Walkman, only to be replaced by CDs; then CDs replaced by downloadable music played on an iPod. The iPod started its decline when music could be stored and played on a smartphone, and now, music streaming is threatening to hasten the demise of personal music ownership altogether.

Before World War II home ownership was far from a given, especially for the lower and middle classes. Less than half of the population owned their homes. The Baby Boom changed that by a full ten percent in one decade after the War, thanks to the GI Bill and VA loans. Today more than one third of the population still does not own a home. In California, our most populous state, home ownership peaked in 2008. The Great Recession and Millennials rethinking the need to own a home is changing the game once again. How long will it be until owning a home is no longer part of the American Dream?

The rate at which things we once thought commonplace are disappearing seems to be accelerating. So how about it, boomers, do we hang on to what we had as long as we can or go with the flow and embrace the new?

Read Mister Boomer’s other posts on disappearing boomer stuff:
Going, Going… Gone?
Boomers Watched Things Come and Go
Boomers’ Labor Love Lost