One of the many reasons we love Mad Men is that it takes us back to our own suburban New York childhoods in the 1960s. And it was sometime in the middle of that turbulent decade that my father announced we were going into the city to one of its famous kosher delis. As a lover of pastrami, corned beef and rye this wasn’t a hard sell. But presented with the menu, I saw nothing that appealed. We were at Ratner’s on the Lower East Side, where Harry and the erstwhile Paul Kinsey, now a Hare Krishna, meet for two meals on last night’s Mad Men (“Christmas Waltz”). It’s a logical choice for the now-vegetarian Paul because Ratner’s specialized in kosher dairy: there wasn’t a wasn’t a corned beef, brisket or pastrami sandwich to be had.
Ironic that Matthew Weiner should feature two kosher dairy meals in an episode titled “Christmas Waltz.” But as usual, he got the details right. One of Ratner’s specialties was its kosher baked vegetable cutlet with mushroom gravy and we see two signs on the walls suggesting it to customers.
Ratner’s recipe for baked vegetable cutlets (which we will soon share) comes from The World Famous Ratner’s Meatless Cookbook by Judith Gethers, the owner’s daughter, and her niece, Elizabeth Lefft (Bantam Books, 1975). The baked vegetable cutlet was a patty made of potatoes, carrots, mushrooms, onions, green beans and peas combined with matzo meal and egg and topped with vegetarian mushroom gravy sauce. Oddly, the mushroom gravy includes mushroom broth and powdered mushrooms, but no mushrooms! The cutlets called for canned vegetables, although we prefer them with fresh.
Ratner’s, which closed its doors in 2002 after almost a century, was what food writer Alan Richman called, “the Lower East Side’s high temple of the soothing kosher dairy lunch.” Ratner’s and other kosher dairy restaurants concocted meat substitutes for dishes such as chopped liver and served them along a with blintzes, gefilte fish, herring and chopped eggs and mushrooms, and soups such as borscht. According to The New York Times, when Ratner’s first opened in 1905, half a million Jews lived on the Lower East Side and on any given day it seemed most of them “gathered from dawn until dusk for its vegetarian dairy menu of onion rolls and latkes served in a cheery brightly lighted setting.”
Two other food related notes from last night’s Mad Men. The financially desperate Lane and his banker sipped Cutty Sark as Lane finagled an extra $50,000 line of credit for Sterling Cooper. Cutty, a blended scotch whisky produced in Glasgow, debuted in 1923 and was produced by the Berry Brothers, who were wine manufacturers. According to the company, the Berry’s “knew what their customers liked and felt that heavy, dark whiskeys would spoil the palate of their wine-loving clientele.” Indeed they did, for in November 1966, just two weeks before we see Lane sipping Cutty, The New York Times reported that the company was having trouble producing one gallon bottles for the United States market which was “screaming” for them.
Speaking of screaming, another flying food incident last night when Megan, furious with Don for coming home late, drunk, and without a phone call, flings a bowl of spaghetti against the wall of their apartment. Shades of Pete tossing Trudy’s roast chicken over their Manhattan balcony. Now that he lives in Cos Cob we wonder where he throws his food for dramatic effect.