Christmas, Kosher Food and Flying Spaghetti

ratners Christmas, Kosher Food and Flying SpaghettiOne 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  Christmas, Kosher Food and Flying Spaghettivegetable 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.”

 Christmas, Kosher Food and Flying SpaghettiTwo 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.

A Perfect Manhattan

The return of Mad Men is three months away, but faithful fans like us are already in countdown mode. Just what is it about Mad Men, set in 1960s New York, that so captivates millions of loyal viewers? What’s the secret in the sauce?

Good writing, strong acting, high production values and glamorous actors are surely part of the recipe. But it’s more than that. For baby boomers Mad Men is like time travel to the days of our childhoods.

As children of the 1960s who grew up in the New York suburbs, Mad Men is an A Perfect Manhattan extended look into our parents’ lives when they were our age. When they threw cocktail and dinner parties we’d quietly sneak half way down the stairs and steal a peak of their grown-up world of well-dressed men and women, cocktail glasses in one hand and cigarettes in the other. Mad Men, as one friend described it, allows us to see the world as our parents experienced it. We hope their lives weren’t as dark as Don and Betty Draper’s, but they surely weren’t as relentlessly sunny and innocent as June and Ward Cleaver’s either.

Mad Men also captures the emotional power of unforgettable historical moments that defined the 1960s, from the existential fear induced by the Cuban Missile Crisis to the sorrow of the Kennedy assassination and the hope or, in the case of some of the characters on Mad Men, the angst stirred by Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. That too, resonates with viewers old enough to have lived through those times.

But as we discovered while writing The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook, the show is also a huge hit with college students and twenty-somethings. What is it about Mad Men that speaks to them?

Like other viewers they’re drawn to the smart writing, the aesthetic and the story. But when we probed a little deeper we discovered a fascination with a world that, at least on the surface, seems much different than the one they are living in.

 A Perfect ManhattanOne Wellesley College student, a young African-American woman told us, “I can’t believe my parents grew up in such a different world than me.” She was referring to the overt sexism and racism that passed for acceptable workplace behavior. Mad Men lets her see a world she said she cannot imagine.

A Tulane University sophomore echoed that sentiment and added that she found Mad Men empowering. At a time when most college woman are thinking about careers, she finds it fascinating to watch the female characters either acquiesce to or struggle against the limitations they faced in the 1960s.

“Watching the contrast in life style choices between Peggy, Joan and Betty it is so A Perfect Manhattan unbelievable that all of this was very real and normal,” she said. “My grandmother had aspirations of overcoming the stereotypical roles women were expected to fill which makes me think of the ever so determined Peggy! Although she attended college and was an intellectual, once she married my grandfather she never worked another day in her life. Watching the show I can imagine the struggle she faced being such an intellect and having to settle as a housewife.”

We sensed that despite the lingering racism and sexism in this country, these young women were grateful to be living in a more enlightened time when an African-American could be president of the United States and a woman could aspire to be the CEO of a major company, not just a secretary who’d be lucky to work her way up to a junior staff position.

For Mike, a recent graduate of Amherst College, Mad Men lets him see a pre-politically correct world in which people didn’t hide their prejudices.

 A Perfect Manhattan“The initial draw was how it recreated this era that seems, on the surface, so different from our own, “ he said, “women smoking while pregnant, people drinking at all hours of the day, blatant sexual discrimination in the office, etc. But the same problems presented in the show still exist today, yet they seem so much more appalling in a 60s drama than in real life. In today’s politically correct world inequality, racism, and sexism are more beneath the surface. Homophobia is masked as ‘protecting the sanctity of marriage,’ for example. But in Mad Men we see people without that veneer of political correctness. For someone of my generation it’s simultaneously shocking and refreshing.”

We don’t know if Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner could have foreseen the show’s appeal to a young generation of viewers born long after the 1960s, but in creating his perfect Manhattan he’s managed to create a program that is catnip to aging boomers and their children alike.