If you were a kid in the late 1950s or early 1960s, as we were, chances are you owned a Hula Hoop. And chances are your parents, or someone they knew, owned a Don Ho album or had a muumuu dress in her closet. At some point your family probably tried Japanese food at a Benihana Steak House or faux-Polynesian cuisine at a Trader Vic’s where the cocktails were adorned with orange slices, cherries, pineapple slices and a little umbrella or swizzle stick vaguely shaped like some Pacific island totem. After dinner, maybe you went to the drive-in to see Elvis in Blue Hawaii or Girls! Girls! Girls! also set in Hawaii.
Hawaii gained statehood in 1959, and as statehood approached and for years thereafter, Americans were simply gaga for anything that smacked of these exotic Pacific islands half way between Japan and the mainland. “Backyard luaus, the traditional native feast, are likely to become as popular as the hula hoop last summer,” declared New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne in 1959. That same year the Associated Press reported that tourism to Hawaii was expected to increase from 100,000 to one million visitor a year.
Mad Men, with its meticulous attention to detail, captures this slice of American life, especially when it comes to food and drink. Remember Don Draper’s first date with Bethany Van Nuys in Season 4, Episode 5 (“The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”)? They’re seated at a teppanyaki table at a Benihana, which lacks the intimacy Bethany is seeking. But the Mai Tai she’s drinking looks delicious. The Mai Tai makes several appearances in Mad Men, a cocktail widely attributed to Victor Bergeron, the California-born restaurateur who founded the Trader Vic’s chain.
On New Year’s Eve 1964, Joan Holloway welcomes fiance Dr.Greg Miller home after a hard day at the hospital, places a lei around his neck, and leads him to a Hawaiian-style dinner she’s prepared (Season 4, Episode 3, “The Good News”). There’s a glazed ham decorated with pineapple and a mysterious blue liquid in a glass which we took to be a Blue Hawaii cocktail.
There’s also a nod to the 50th state in Season 2, Episode 11 (“The Jet Set” ) when Don and Pete Campbell travel to Los Angeles for a meeting and Pete is seen poolside at The Beverly Hills Hotel sipping an orange-yellow cocktail. For The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook we asked the hotel to help us identify the concoction. They dug into the archives and determined it was a Royal Hawaiian, a cocktail popularized at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki.
If you want to host a Hawaiian-style luau to welcome back Mad Men this March, or a Hawaii-themed holiday party this winter, there are a host of recipes in The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook to choose from: Mai Tais, Blue Hawaiis, Royal Hawaiians, Rumaki, egg rolls Sterling Cooper-style, pineapple-glazed ham, and, to top if off, pineapple upside down cake. Even in New York in winter there are ways to bring the Hawaiian islands home. Hau’oli Lanui! (Happy Holidays!)