June 21, 2013 7:08 pm

The history cook: The Playboy Gourmet

The dishes were adventurous for their time but there’s no disguising the dated wit of this ‘manly’ cookbook spun off from the magazine
Images of book from British Library Collection, Playboy cookery book©Nina Mangalanayagam

This phallic kebab is typical of the book’s “lurid food photography”

The Playboy Gourmet, by Thomas Mario, HMH Publishing, 1961

Playboy magazine was famous for peddling fantasies of the bedroom but with food and cookery frequently on its pages, the kitchen was part of the fantasy too. In 1961 these culinary articles were collated into the book Playboy Gourmet by Thomas Mario, the magazine’s food editor. The book contains 315 pages of lurid food photography, manly advice about cooking and living, and 24 chapters of recipes.

In the introduction Mario describes his writing style as having a “robustious [sic] masculine tang”. Indeed, every chapter heading labours under Mario’s “well-spiced wit” and innuendo – “Meating with your Approval: how to win flavour with the animal kingdom” for instance, or “The Secrets of Saucery: a sensuous art, seductively unveiled”, or, worse, “gourmet gobbler” (turkey recipes).

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Written in the middle of the cold war, in an era of growing affluence, The Playboy Gourmet embraces a masculine pursuit of pleasure against a threat of conformity and domesticity. “In an increasingly womanised society the domain of the chef – male since time immemorial – has been invaded by chintz-aproned housewives,” Mario writes. Armed with a copy of The Playboy Gourmet, however, the “well rounded urban male, safe in his bachelor bastion”, could reconfigure the kitchen as his own. Replacing “baby-blue and forget-me-not pans” with “solid burnished coppers” and other “masculine gadgetry”, the playboy gourmet distances himself from the threat of culinary castration.

Contemporary recipe books aimed at housewives emphasise thrift, economy of labour and pleasing others. For the playboy cooking is never a duty or chore. It is a hobby he enjoys with “an unconcealed appreciation for the sheer sensual pleasure of eating and drinking well”.

Compared with the homogenised home cooking of 1960s America, the food on offer in The Playboy Gourmet is adventurous, exotic and varied. While suburban families were tucking into a diet of meat loaf, macaroni cheese and convenience food, the playboy gourmet feasted on “lobster pâté”, “roast quail with grapes” and “fruit-stuffed avocado with rum dressing”. Even everyday foods like omelettes become a vehicle for extravagance. The successful omelette chef, according to Mario, “must be something of a show-off”. His omelettes are stuffed with “curried chicken livers”, ”sherried lobster” and “mushrooms in sour cream”. The playboy, moreover, is cultured and well travelled, and his culinary repertoire reflects this. He cooks “a potpourri of kingly comestibles from abroad” with recipes from France, Italy, India and even Polynesia. From the Middle East there is the kebab, represented by a phallic photo of a sword-turned-shish skewering chunks of meat and vegetables.

Book cover of 'Playboy Gourmet', by Thomas Mario©Nina Mangalanayagam

Unlike the suburban housewife, the playboy cook is not troubled with the relentless drudgery of domestic life. His bachelor-pad kitchen is designed to minimise labour. Tedious food preparation and clearing up are carried out by the “occasional maid or manservant”, leaving the playboy free to “bestow on every dish the final touch that gives elegance, grace and importance to informal and intimate dining”. Nor does the playboy gourmet work in an ordinary kitchen. He aspires to a “Kitchenless Kitchen”, “a fabulous food bar for informal dining” where the chef deploys his state-of-the-art gadgets. Naturally, one photograph implies, his awed audience is made up of cocktail-dress-clad “female companions”.

Inevitably, the association between food and sex is alluded to, explicitly or implicitly, throughout the book. The lobster, we’re told, “is the playboy of the deep ... an epicure, a traveller ... moving about with vigour and dash”. “You can’t talk about oysters and leave out sex,” Mario writes. As connoisseur and raconteur, the playboy can “hold his playmate spellbound” with his crab lore (an account of the “mating habits” of King crabs) and, once seduction has been successful or the “dalliance is done”, “there is only one manly thing to do – give her a hamburger”.

We’ll never know how many ladies were the lucky recipients of this Playboy-style entertainment, or how many men were able to adopt the Mario lifestyle. Many cookery books often offer aspirational lifestyles – and The Playboy Gourmet is ultimately escapist fantasy.

From a contemporary perspective, its strained bonhomie and double entendres sound like an inebriated bore at a business function. Perhaps it’s no surprise that feminism was waiting just round the corner.

Polly Russell is a curator at the British Library

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Lobster pâté (about 1¼ cups)

1 boiled fresh lobster, about 1½ lbs raw

½ cup celery, cut into small dice

3 tbs butter at room temperature

2 tbs mayonnaise

½ tsp lemon juice

¼ tsp onion salt

⅛ tsp Worcestershire sauce

2 tbs dry sherry

Dash white pepper

● Remove all meat from the lobster, discarding sac in the back of head. Cut the meat into cubes about ¼in thick, but don’t discard the green liver or coral roe, if any.

● Put lobster and celery through an electric meat grinder, using the finest blade. Add all other ingredients, and mix well, then chill in the refrigerator.

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