You are what you eat is the common adage, but What you eat describes who you are is more appropriate for circa 1960s Madison Avenue and New York City.
The power lunch. Two-for-one happy hour. The business dinner. A sandwich from the corner diner. Scotch at 11am.
Food and drink play an important role in Mad Men.
The production design certainly gives the show an air of visual authenticity and nothing grounds a character like seeing them eat breakfast or mix a drink.
It's a common narrative device in film and television. The ritual of preparation. Consumerism, consumption and excess. The implied implications of someone eating and drinking alone. The social aspects of dinner parties with neighbors. Food and drink go a long way to reinforce themes and define and develop characters.
Mad Men is no different. Peggy Olsen bringing a simple sandwich and a bruised banana in a stained brown paper bag to work for lunch said a lot about the kind of person she was. Roger Sterling throwing up oysters and vodka perfectly characterized his excess. Characters eat and drink to celebrate just as much as they eat and drink to medicate.
The tense family dinners. The expensive meals and expense accounts. Need an excuse to drink? It's 5pm somewhere in the world! What would Mad Men be without all of this?
With New York City being one of the greatest food and drink cities in the world the use of food and drink in the show was a given.
Do you have a favorite Mad Men food or drink moment? Below are the food and drink references in the first episode to help you begin to eat and drink your way through Mad Men. Obsessive fans out there can also take a look at my "Mad Men on the Menu" Pinterest page for a visual list of food and drink references.
Season 1 Episode 1 - "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"
Less than two minutes into the show we learn something about Don Draper: he drinks old fashioneds. By the nine minute mark we learn he likes to drink. Period. Joan tells the new secretary Peggy to keep a fifth of something in her desk. "Mr. Draper drinks rye," she says. "Rye's Canadian, right?" Peggy asks, to which Joan replies, "You better find out."
Prior to a research meeting in preparation for the Lucky Strike pitch Sal asks Don, "Should we drink before the meeting or after? Or both?" He pours himself a scotch and adds Alka Seltzer. After the research meeting, which did not go very well, Don says, "Sal, I'll take that drink now."
Despite the research meeting the Lucky Strike pitch went very well, which was cause for celebration. Roger pours himself and Don a drink and says "I don't know if you were drunk, or not drunk, but that was inspired." Pete, Paul, Ken, and Harry join the celebration with a bottle of Canadian Club.
During the Menkin's Department Store meeting David Cohen from the mailroom starts to pour himself a Bloody Mary but after a look from Roger he decides against it.
To reinforce the office hierarchy of the time Joan tells Peggy that the men in the office may act like they want a secretary but most of the time they're looking for something between a mother and a waitress. She also tells Peggy to pick up a few things at lunch, including a box of chocolates. Peggy gives these gifts to the switchboard operators when she meets them.
After the Lucky Strike celebration Don reprimands Peggy by saying "If you ever let Pete Campbell go through my trash again then you won't be able to find a job selling sandwiches in Penn Station."
At Pete's bachelor party, when three ladies arrive at the guys table Pete asks, "How'd you swing it?." Ken says, "They work at the automat!" Paul adds, "He pressed a button and they came out!"
Food and Drink at Business Meetings
The first episode introduces viewers to the in-office business meeting, Sterling Cooper style. The meeting is with Rachel Menkin of Menkin's Department Store. Bloody Marys and shrimp cocktails are served. Rachel is Jewish. Shrimp is a shellfish. Not kosher. The placement of shellfish in the scene reinforces the lack of sensitivity started with Don's "not on my watch" comment in reference to whether or not the firm has ever hired any Jews. The meeting did not go well. Don invites Rachel to dinner that night to repair the damage. A waiter walks by with a pu-pu platter as another delivers Rachel and Don's drinks: a special mai tai and a whiskey, neat.
Don makes an afternoon visit to Midge and thinks out loud, "We should get married. What size Cadillac do you take?" Midge replies, "You know the rules: I don't make plans and I don't make breakfast."
In Pete Campbell's first scene he is on the phone with his soon-to-be-wife. To end the call he says that he has a meeting and he suggests that she take her mother to lunch and tell her it was his idea. In that one brief conversation we get a clear idea of the kind of person Pete Campbell is. He is drinking from a coffee cup but I'd be surprised if it contained coffee or tea.
At the end of the episode it is late. Don finally returns home and we learn something else: he is married with two children. His wife Betty tells him "There's a plate in the oven... unless you're not hungry."
The Food Companions, by Richard Farmer
"The introduction of rationing ensured that food became a central concern for the British people during the Second World War. 'The Food Companions' investigates the cinema of this period and demonstrates the cultural impact that rationing and food control had on both government propaganda and commercial feature films."
The Meaning of Food, by Patricia Harris
"Provides an examination of the role of food, journeying to thirteen different ethnic communities across the United States to explain how the food of each culinary tradition becomes an expression of human diversity."
Food in the Movies, by Steve Zimmerman
"This expanded and revised edition details 400 food scenes, in addition to the 500 films reviewed for the first edition, and an introduction tracing technical, artistic and cultural forces that contributed to the emergence of a "food film" genre--originated by films like Tampopo and Babette's Feast and continued by films like No Reservations, Ratatouille, and Waitress"
Food, restaurant, and menu information
from Laura Rietz:
For sixties-era food and drink recipes, we have several copies of the Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook, by Judy Gelman, including an eBook version (hint: place a hold soon—it's likely that all copies will be checked out before you know it!). You might also be inspired by NYPL's digitized copies of menus and other materials from restaurants mentioned on the show. While you're at it, help transcribe other menus for our "What's On the Menu?" project:
- Danny's Hide A Way (mentioned in Season 5, Episode 8, "Lady Lazarus")
- Grand Central Oyster Bar and Restaurant (mentioned in Season 5, Episode 8, "Lady Lazarus")
- Lutece (mentioned in Season 2, Episode 3, "The Benefactor")
- Peking House (mentioned in Season 4, Episode 2, "Christmas Comes But Once a Year")
- La Caravelle (mentioned in Season 4, Episode 12, "Blowing Smoke")
You can also learn more about the Horn & Hardart Automats of the era in this post by Valerie Wingfield.