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Mad Men food and drink

Will Dean Will Dean | 11:59 UK time, Wednesday, 13 October 2010

In the 1960s portrayed in BBC Four’s multi-award winning US drama Mad Men, the booze and grub is almost as important as the suits and smoking. As befits greedy men with expense accounts to burn, it’s rare that an episode doesn’t see some of the ad men drop into Manhattan’s power eateries like La Grenouille and Lutece to entertain a client or a mistress.

Roger Sterling (John Slattery) in Mad Men


Food is an important part of creating the reality of the Mad Men world. Indeed, prop-master Ellen Freund hires a professional chef to get things right. It can make for light moments when the audience, with 21st century hindsight, can laugh at the fads: “They make you wear a bib!” says Roger Sterling with glee as he sends Don Draper off on a date to Jimmy’s La Grange for chicken Kiev.

Steaks and fatty foods from places like Jim Downey's Steak House are the main order of the day - even if it means multiple heart attacks for the likes of Roger. One of the first times we see him, he’s having a raw egg cracked over his steak tartare and a few episodes later he’s marvelling over his room service: "We've got oysters Rockefeller, beef Wellington, Napoleons... we leave this lunch alone it'll take over Europe." Main man Don, who grew up poor and eating horsemeat, isn’t such a glutton, in fact in the latest series it’s been noted that he hardly eats at all. The suspicion being that his stomach can’t handle it because of his drinking.

Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in Mad Men


Booze in Mad Men is key to the characters’ lives - for better or, usually, for worse. When we first met Don he was drinking classic whiskey cocktail the Old-Fashioned in Harlem’s Lenox Lounge. It’s a favourite of his, but by the current season he’s necking back whiskey like apple juice and not always the good stuff either. When his English colleague Lane Price (Jared Harris) shared a bottle of vintage Scotch with him, he was amazed by the lack of bite.

Roger, meanwhile, is more of a Martini man. Indeed, when Don wanted to get revenge on Roger for making a move on his wife Betty, he tricked him into drinking far too many Martinis (with oysters, naturally) at lunch and made him climb the stairs to the top of their Madison Avenue office. Betty herself favours a glass or three of burgundy, especially for the days moping around the house, while the office drones are content with sipping beer and cocktails at swinging bars like PJ Clarke’s.

Probably the best way food was used to illustrate an understanding of the characters happened back in series two when Betty hosted a dinner party for some Heineken executives. Don used this as an opportunity to demonstrate the appeal of the beer for upmarket housewives. Betty made a fabulous gazpacho from Spain, hors d'oeuvre of rumaki "from Japan", a leg of lamb from Dutchess County with mint jelly and egg noodles the way Grandma Hofstadt made them in Germany; all served with a choice of burgundy and the Heineken that Don had strategically placed in their suburban grocery store. Betty helped to highlight a marketing opportunity without even realising it. For more about Mad Men home-cooking, take a peek at the mainly food-focussed Welcome to the Drapers blog.

Even with recipes that have stood the test of time like chicken Kiev and Martinis, Mad Men’s dietary habits still seem a world away. If you remember the 60s, was your diet anything like the spirits and mignonette sauce-drenched one of the Mad Men?

Will Dean writes an episode by episode Mad Men blog for the Guardian. He has also featured as a guest blogger on the BBC TV blog writing about why Mad Men needs no hard sell.



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