A Mad Men Thanksgiving: How Sweet It Is

It’s Thanksgiving Day 1964 and Don Draper and his ex-wife Betty, now Mrs. Henry Francis, are spending the day in very different ways. (Season 4, Episode 1, “Public Relations.”) Betty and the Draper children, Sally and Bobby, are at a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with the Francis family. Don is in his dark Greenwich Village apartment with a call girl who doesn’t have much time: she, too, has to make Thanksgiving dinner with her family. No scene in Mad Men captures Don’s essential loneliness more tragically.

The Thanksgiving table at Henry’s mother’s home is covered with fine linens and elegant A Mad Men Thanksgiving: How Sweet It Is glassware. Everyone is formally dressed. When Henry’s dour, heavy set mother observes that Sally hasn’t eaten anything, she responds with the candor of a child and says she doesn’t like the food, much to Betty’s embarrassment.

“How about sweet potato?” offers Betty, eager to cover for Sally’s breach of etiquette.

“I’m not hungry,” pouts Sally. We sense she is still smarting from her parents’ divorce and isn’t happy to be spending the holiday with a lot of people she doesn’t know.

“Look, there’s marshmallow,” says Betty, nearly forcing Sally to take a bite, which she promptly spits out.

A Thanksgiving dish widely associate with the 1960s is “candied sweets,” a casserole made with sweet potatoes, brown sugar, butter and topped with marshmallow. (You can also use yams; contrary to popular belief yam is not just another word for sweet potato, it’s another root vegetable altogether.) So sweet it could be a dessert, candied sweet potatoes have been a popular winter dish in the south for generations, and a year-round soul food staple. Though marshmallows are one of the earliest confections known to man, dating to ancient Greece and Rome, they weren’t mass-produced until the turn of the 20th century. The earliest recipes for combining them with sweet potatoes date to the 1920s.

The candied sweets on the Francis Thanksgiving table in 1964 could well have come from The Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook (Meredith, 1962), published just two years earlier. Chances are you’re going to be having pie for Thanksgiving dessert so we recommend these as a side anyone with a sweet tooth will enjoy.

Candied Sweets

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

6 servings

 A Mad Men Thanksgiving: How Sweet It Is

Candied sweets from the Mad Men era -- a casserole made with sweet potatoes, brown sugar, butter and topped with marshmallows. From The Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook (Meredith, 1962).


  • 6 medium sweet potatoes ,cooked and peeled
  • ¾ cup brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ cup (1/2 stick) butter
  • ½ cup mini-marshmallows


  1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Butter a 1 ½ quart casserole. Cut sweet potatoes into ½ inch slices. Place a layer in the bottom of casserole.
  2. Sprinkle with brown sugar and slat; dot with butter. Continue layering until all ingredients are used, ending with butter and sugar.
  3. Bake uncovered about 30 minutes, or until glazed. Add marshmallows and bake 5 more minutes, to melt (marshmallows should be lightly browned).
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What About the Jello Mold?

Tell someone you’re writing a cookbook designed to take readers back to the 1960s and you’ll get questions such as these:

“Will you include a recipe for jello mold?”

“Do you have Grasshopper pie?”

“How about a tuna noodle casserole made with canned soup?”

“How many recipes involve Spam?”

But when you read The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook you’ll find that the answers to these questions are, “no, no, no and none.” True, there are no recipes in the book that call for goat cheese, wasabi or balsamic reductions, either. And, certainly there was some pretty tacky food that was popular in the 1960s. But there was a lot of fine food, too, even if some of it isn’t as ubiquitous today as it once was.

We didn’t set out to simply compile recipes from the 1960s in The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook; the foods had to be featured in Mad Men, served in the restaurants and bars featured in the show, or have some other close connection to the storylines. We also wanted to ensure 1960s authenticity which is why we never settled only for updated recipes for, say, Waldorf Salad or Oysters Rockefeller, though we sometimes included both the old and the new. We worked with chefs, bartenders and restaurant owners to dish up the recipes used in their establishments in the early 1960s, when Don Draper and Roger Sterling might have walked through the door.

il fullxfull.88513562 300x221 What About the Jello Mold?Our quest for authenticity took us deep into the shelves of special cookbook collections and to the pages of magazines and newspapers of the time. Sometimes it was obvious which cookbooks to turn to: on her kitchen counter Betty Draper kept copies of The Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook, the so-called “Red Plaid,” and Betty Crocker’s Hostess Cookbook. But we Scan 11 300x171 What About the Jello Mold?dug deeper, in some cases into Julia Child’s personal cookbook collection now held at Radcliffe College’s Schlesinger Library. Holding a cookbook in which Julia Child had inscribed her name is simply a thrilling experience. Sometimes you never know what might fall out of an old cookbook: a handwritten family recipe for scalloped potatoes, or an old Frito’s “Party Games of the Stars” pamphlet featuring Art Linkletter.

We consulted cookbooks by the pre-eminent food writers and chefs of the time: Child along with James Beard, Clementine Paddleford, and Craig Claiborne. Old copies of

 What About the Jello Mold?

James Beard

Life magazine, Gourmet and Woman’s Day, to name a few, also delivered insight into food trends and recipes for canapés, eggnog, and a Bacardi Rum Frappè. Then there were the truly quirky cookbooks we gleefully stumbled upon which were reflective of the times, books such as Poppy Cannon’s New Can Opener Cookbook, a cookbook built around a new utensil of convenience (others were specific to the electric skillet or the blender), and Nina Mortellito’s Small Kitchen Cookbook which showed urban dwellers, such as Joan Holloway, how to make big meals in their tiny apartment kitchens. (In Season 3, Episode 3, “My Old Kentucky Home,” Joan prepares a crown roast in her tiny kitchen.) Betty Draper was insecure about her culinary skills so Peg Bracken’s I Hate to Cook Bookwas a logical place to hunt for recipes and it was there that we found a Turkey Tetrazzini recipe we adapted for our book. Why Turkey Tetrazzini? In Season 1, Episode 9 (“Shoot”), Betty reveals her doubts about her cooking

mad men hearts of palm 233x300 What About the Jello Mold?

Sardi’s Hearts of Palm Salad from The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook

skills as she serves Don Turkey Tetrazzini for dinner one night. At times we felt like culinary anthropologists, or at least sleuths, as we tried to track down recipes that were both authentic to the time period and connected to Mad Men.

So, no to jello mold — yes to Hearts of Palm Salad, Devlled Eggs and Beef WellingtonAnd is this retro-food tasty? It all disappeared quickly at cocktail and dinner parties where our friends tasted many of the recipes in our book. But there was one part of the1960s social scene we avoided like the plague: there was no smoking.