Ornamental Mad Men

The meat of the argument Roland Barthes makes in “Ornamental Cookery” is that the poor readers of Elle are not entitled to “real dishes,” which is why the magazine whose audience is primarily “small income groups” showcases such pretty, impractical dishes like partridges with cherries.

Like pink chicken, Barthes thinks that something isn’t quite right with the food presented in Elle. The food has a “smooth coating” that hides an unimportant “interdeterminate bedrock.” There are glazed, rounded surfaces, sauces, creams, icing, jellies, and a penchant for a pink theme throughout the tableau. It’s what’s on the outside that matters. The final presentation is the important part of the dish – the dish must show the “working class” public gentility through sight, not attainability. They’re poor, so they can’t actually buy a partridge, and even cherries are expensive. The chef puts a little sauce over the fowl and just like that, the “brutality of meat” is disguised. The meal is made respectable, what the masses want to be. Here, the practical and primary use of food is secondary to the myth of ornamental cookery. The consumption that’s happening is of pictures of the food, not the actual food.

If you’re thinking of pictures in a magazine that are good enough for consumption, then you might think of AMC’s Mad Men. The aesthetic is like a polished version of history far enough back that most of us only have hand-me-down memories of it, but close enough that it seems somehow attainable. Nearly every scene in the series is perfectly framed, the colors are coordinated, and it is all just pleasing. Even mundane settings like driving in a car or taking a meeting in a conference room seem to be a study in composition. The characters themselves are works of art, there is no detail spared. It always seems that the characters are frequently lost in thought, holding a smoking cigarette, which adds to the “cool” vibe.

Don Draper makes millions of dollars, has beautiful wives and girlfriends, and is considered to be one of the brightest stars of the advertising agencies where he is a partner. He has fine suits, a stream of new, nice cars, and (later) a fancy apartment. On the outside, he has everything and is massively successful. Everything always works out in the end for Don Draper.

His job and lifestyle is enviable – but unattainable to nearly everyone around him. He is thought of as a genius, effortlessly coming up with ideas that blow away clients with little to no preparation while it seems Pete and Ken are always working. His love life isn’t always happy but he always has hope for a romantic encounter, unlike Harry Crane (or most of the men at one time or another). Much like the boring or savage part of the meal under the glazing or glacé, he is made better with the ornamentation of all his achievements. The audience is able to overlook his flaws to consume his life as a whole.

Even though Don has a few terrible qualities, somehow a good mind and lots of luck let him coast through life, doing everything right even though he never seems to do anything and at times seems to sabotage himself. He is the artistically composed cherry covered partridge. He came from nothing, though, so isn’t he more attainable to the average working man? Not quite. When his past is revealed, it isn’t in the form of an inspiring come-up to where he is now but something that is terrible and needs to be repressed. An average man could never do the same, even the characters that come from money aren’t as successful as Don Draper. Are we not worthy of someone who has a smaller degree of success but who achieves it in a more natural, human manner? Would that be as interesting?

Anyway, what are the chances you get the chance to switch dog tags with your commander in Korea so that you can simultaneously fake your death and get a new identity? I wouldn’t count on it.

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