The last scene of Mad Men’s fifth season finale on June 10 featured dapper Don Draper (Jon Hamm) ordering an Old Fashioned at a Manhattan bar, a callback to the first scene in the pilot episode of the critically acclaimed series about the 1960s advertising world in which he did the same. “Don’s looking buttoned-up and old-fashioned these days, and that’s what he orders,” says Judy Gelman, the co-author of The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook and an exuberantly thorough affiliated blog, which chronicles the show through the lens of food and drink. “In 1967, he’s even more old-fashioned than he was seven years earlier.”
The show’s careful concern for style detail — in fashion, furnishing, music and more — has been the subject of much acclaim. But perhaps not quite enough attention has been paid to its keen sense of time and place, especially as a measure and reflection of character, when it comes to the sort of consumption culture that actually involves the gullet.
Gelman and her partner, Peter Zheutlin, share a taxonomist’s eye (or is it tongue?) when it comes to examining what show runner Matthew Weiner and his research and writing staff have conjured out of everything from the hearts of palm salad at midtown haunt Sardi’s to the Beef Wellington that Trudy Campbell (Alison Brie) cooks for a dinner party in suburban Cos Cob, Connecticut.
Of course, whereas the slim-cut suits and patterned A-line dresses of the era have certainly resonated with today’s viewing audience, prompting a full-on 1960s attire revival during the course of the show’s run, the food hasn’t caught on in the same way with the affluent, educated contemporary fan base whose presumed values — organic! artisanal! authentic! — are simply not in accord with their predecessors, who were themselves most excited about innovations in culinary convenience (canned goods) and technology (Cool Whip).
Perhaps the most notable gastronomic arc that takes place during the series is the cosmopolitan characters’ slow and steady immersion into the then-nascent world of ethnic food. “We see Don dining at Benihana in New York and eating chile rellenos in California,” says Zheutlin. “[Mad Men]’s use of food always seems to convey something about the characters, their place in time and their level of sophistication.”