08/24/2010 12:45 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Cooking With Mad Men

The drinks menu is easy--anything from scotch on the rocks to wine to martinis to Mint Juleps. And we know what brand mad men and women smoke, at least for now--Lucky Strike. But what do mad men and women eat? When they dine out in season four, it's Chicken Kiev. And when they're staying in--well, it's easy to see why they don't eat in very often.

In the first episode of the new season, Dan's housekeeper told him that she had made pork chops--surely enough to drive a man not only to drink but to thoughts of an earlier season, when Betty, jumping up from the table to fetch his dinner, perkily asked, "Hot or cold"? Did we ever see Betty eat, even when she was pregnant? Most evenings she was brooding at the kitchen table, nursing a glass of wine. As little Bobby says, "Mommy doesn't eat." I can recall only two noteworthy exceptions: the vision of Betty--in the same episode as Bobby's observation--devouring a chicken leg after her one-night stand with a stranger and her tryst in a sweet shop over a dish of ice cream with future- second-husband and Freudian-father-figure Henry Francis.

Dinners at the house on Bullet Park Road were always complicated: if the party where Betty served Heineken wasn't bad enough, there was the simple meal when Don brought Roger home--the one that led to a seductive pass (by Roger) and a slap (by Don). Can we blame Betty, one of the most maligned of Mad Men characters, if she sometimes forgets about dinner entirely and has to be reminded by her children?

After all, the Drapers' kitchen table is where Betty told Don that she was pregnant and Don told Betty that he was never who he appeared to be. The first episode of this year sustained the pork-motif with the publicity stunt--dreamed up by Peggy and Pete--of a staged fight between two women over a ham. Was this a tribute to the actor playing Don? John Hamm's name aside, his character's history with food is fraught. He wasn't above using a lunch of oysters to undermine Roger as payback for that dinner above. And he left his daughter's birthday party to pick up the cake and forgot it! How does this happen? Two hours should have been plenty of time for a flashback to his childhood, a visit to his mistress, and a stop at the bakery.

Don's housekeeper shouldn't be offended that Don passed on her pork chops. Very little food is consumed by these otherwise voracious characters. Of the few who attended the wedding of Roger's daughter on the day Kennedy was shot, even fewer had any appetite for the reception entrees. In fact, Don rarely eats. In the third episode of this season, he ordered a big steak dinner on New Year's Eve, but then said he didn't feel hungry; meanwhile, his dining companion--the British import Lane Price--decided to wear his steak as a Texas belt buckle. The only time Don actually seems comfortable with the idea of eating is when he's with Anna Draper--in other words, when he's Dick Whitman.

That first episode of Season 4 not only opened with a scene in a restaurant, in which Don handled an interview poorly (how could he not have failed? The question was was "Who is Don Draper?"), but also included a second food fight between two women, when Betty smashed a spoonful of sweet potatoes and marshmallows into her daughter Sally's face at the Thanksgiving table (a table set by Henry Francis's mother--Betty is indeed treading on dangerous ground). Like a good little mad woman in training, Sally then left the table and all food that evening.

The connection between food and destruction appeared again in the second episode of this season, when the creepy Glen broke into what has turned from the Draper House into the Francis House (but we know it's really still the Draper house, literally and figuratively) and emptied the contents of the refrigerator onto the kitchen floor and counters and little Bobby's bed, leaving messages for both Sally and his old flame, Betty.

Spunky Peggy seems to have the healthiest relationship with food. Pete, with whom she shares a secret, once had an emasculating experience involving returning a duplicate Chip 'N Dip that he and Trudy had received as a wedding gift--until he exchanged it for a rifle. True, when Peggy's life was just past its darkest moment, there was that Sunday dinner with her family and the priest who ultimately became obsessed with her and played rock songs when he should have been praying; he also tried to talk to her about her illegitimate baby at an Easter Egg Hunt--sometimes an egg is much more than an egg.

Peggy, however, has gotten her life and all her dishes (and her hair) in order now. We see her unwrapping sandwiches at her desk for lunch and eating breakfast even while she's rushing to get ready for work. She even offered one of Don's women (Bobbie, the wife of the comedian whose show was sponsored by Utz Potato Chips!) toast for breakfast after bailing her, along with Don, out of jail.

And Joan, ah Joan. She once interrupted a dinner that she had prepared to clock her new husband with a vase (once again, the wedding gift as weapon of destruction and the dinner table as battle ground--Trudy and Pete have slugged it out there, too--where the characters' very souls, along with their relationships, are at stake), and in Episode 3 of the new season she sliced her hand while making fresh orange juice (apparently, nonalcoholic drinking will kill you). But in the office Joan is the unflappable organizer of meals--lunches for the girls, advice for the girls on free lunches with the guys, and menus for holiday parties.

Joan is very good at ordering food. Chinese food may seem like an odd choice for a Christmas party (Season 4, Episode 2), but she's so decisive and so clearly in charge that no one would think of questioning it. Besides, no one at that party (or in the audience watching that party) gave a damn about what particular food was served--only that it be plentiful enough to suggest the fledgling company's success. For mad men and women, it's all about what food symbolizes--and this show consistently serves up a number of dark metaphors--rare, sharp, and fulfilling.

--By Carolyn Foster Segal