(Editor’s note: Lindsey Frances Jones is a food blogger in Boston whom I met last winter in a food blogger swap that the Boston Food Bloggers and the Austin Food Blogger Alliance coordinated. Her blog, Made by Frances, is part recipe notebook, part commentary on finding joy in the kitchen and in life in Boston. Her post on Mad Men comes just in time for tonight’s premiere. If you are interested in writing a guest post, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
With the return of Mad Men for a fifth season, there is an endless amount of culinary tie-ins and themed party planning. There are tips on how to throw a Mad Men viewing party, lessons on retro cocktail arts, and an unofficial Mad Men cookbook.
There is an allure to retro ingredients like marshmallow creme, which seem out of place in our love of all things authentic. Yet there is also the problem of romanticizing a lost era of food without understanding the social inequalities of the 1960’s. A blurb from the Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook website highlights the romanticization perfectly:
“Ever wish you could mix an Old Fashioned just the way Don Draper likes it? Or prepare Oysters Rockefeller and a martini the way they did fifty years ago at one of Roger Sterling’s favorite haunts, The Grand Central Oyster Bar? Ever wonder how Joan Harris manages to prepare a perfect crown roast in her tiny apartment kitchen?”
What this kind of comment misses is that food in Mad Men displays the inequality of the time: it’s why office secretaries eat at their desks from parchment paper-wrapped sandwiches while the men sip old fashioneds and dine out with clients. And it’s why Don’s ex-wife Betty uses jarred tomato sauce and dried pasta in a hurry when her black housemaid isn’t around to make dinner.
Who gets to eat what in Mad Men is a small but detailed way the show’s writers use to illustrate the inequalities and misogyny of the 1960’s. Ruth Reich writes about the lost art of a correctly made Caesar salad, but those table-side constructed salads were primarily enjoyed in white and male-dominated restaurants by men like Don Draper.
Mad Men is one of the best feminist shows on television; its writers don’t lie to the viewer by transforming its female characters into perfect contemporary women. Instead they show us the unsettling historical realities of the time. The point isn’t to shun retro recipes–I’ve always wanted to make a baked Alaska, I’ll admit it–but to not forget the contexts in which these recipes were made.