We wondered how our favorite chef-writer, Ro Howe—chef-owner of Barraud Caterers, Ltd., in New York City—would view this new collection of authentic Mad Men–era recipes. “A true abomination,” she calls the brown sauce in a 1960s White House recipe for Beef Wellington. But to our surprise, she found the book “serious fun.” —Ed.
The cover says it all, with its image of a classic 4- to 5-ounce martini, straight up, with two olives. This is The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook: Inside the Kitchens, Bars, and Restaurants of Mad Men, by Judy Gelman and Peter Zheutlin (BenBella Books, Inc., $11.32). And it turns out to be a delightful evocation of nostalgia-Americana—like the television series itself, which uses food/dining/drinking as cultural props that highlight the ambiance and mores of America in the sixties.
Like a normal cookery book, The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook is divided into useful sections. First (and foremost!) come drinks. Then come apps, salads, mains, and desserts—recipes gleaned from the bars, restaurants, magazines, and cookbooks of the early sixties era. All of these sources were celebrating the first blush of flush after the relative deprivations of the decade and a half after WW II. Trade, commerce, and their important partner, advertising, were the new battlefields. All of them required entertaining and networking, so corporate America rose to the occasion by having meetings in the natural gathering-places: bars, restaurants, clubs, and private homes.
Mad Men has done a wonderful job of spotlighting the erstwhile hot watering holes and dining establishments (some still extant), and this book presents their recipes: the could-not-be-omitted Oak Bar’s Manhattan; Grand Central Oyster Bar’s Oysters Rockefeller; Keens Caesar Salad. And, cleverly knitting the fictional characters into the skein of the book, it gives us Jerry’s Deviled Eggs; Betty’s Turkey Tetrazzini; Kitty’s Pineapple Upside Down Cake, all adopted from contemporary sources.
It is interesting to note that Americans still eat in the consecutive style epitomized in this era by starting with a salad—the vinegar dressings of which totally annul the grace of wine. Salads still frequently began meals, whereas Europeans eat salad as a palate cleanser after the main course. America came very late to having wine with meals as a matter of course, perhaps because we initiated the cocktail culture. Have you tried having three high-octane cocktails before dinner and then drinking most of a bottle of wine, and following that with a cognac digestif—and did you live to remember it, or not? My point, precisely.
The cocktails are classic and fun. The food recipes are historical hand-me-downs of culinary Americana like Spaghetti and Meatballs with Marinara Sauce and adaptations from classic French and other newfangled “foreign” cuisines: I am sure that Sardi’s Steak Tartare is indeed the restaurant’s genuine recipe, but any serious French bistro would not present the tartare already mixed! French food with un accent Américain! Quelle horreur!! The 1962 gazpacho has the bread served as croutons sprinkled on top, not the authentic mashing of soaked bread with good olive oil to create the emulsion essential to a true gazpacho of any type.
And shall we speak of the industrial boxtop butchers and the food abominators? There are, thankfully, only one or two, like the ubiquitous “add sour cream and stir in packaged dry onion soup mix” that Lipton dubbed California Dip, tasting of chemicals and with enough sodium to pack a heart attack. The recipe for the White House’s Beef Wellington is fine in itself, but the brown sauce accompanying it clearly is a donation from the recipe file of a “chef” who never set foot inside a kitchen and doesn’t have the first clue about constructing the good jus reduction with demi-glace sauce that the original recipes pleads for. A true abomination—thankfully, the only one I found.
The recipes, put together with canned bravado and boxtops, indicate the period’s culinary dearth. However, where recipes from scratch are cited, the ingredients used are fresh and appealing, not manufactured. My favorite drink recipe? The Stork Club Cocktail (above left) with gin, Triple Sec, OJ, lime juice, and Angostura. And food? Definitely Lutèce’s Shrimp in Escargot Butter (above right). They both wear their age well, and are as valid now as they were when Don Draper entertained the Schillings and the Barretts.
I’m left with “How serious is the book?” In culinary terms, not very—but that alone reflects the period accurately. The introductions to each recipe are what make this book for me. The serious fun comes from the research and period detail, as well as detailing the recipes referenced in each episode. That’s fine, because it’s a fun giggle-fad and it’s good for a theme party when you’re spicing up your engagement calendar with your mad men and women friends.