There was a waspish piece in Sunday’s New York Times magazine about Hugh Hefner and the Playboy empire. It said that Hef “lives these days what appears to be the life of an invalid, or even of a cosseted mental patient: wearing pajamas all day; rarely venturing out of the house; taking most of his meals in his bedroom — the menu seldom varying, the crackers and potato chips carefully prescreened to remove any broken ones.” This does sound suitably nuts, but the detail about the potato chips may have hit a particular note with the author of the piece - Charles McGrath – who is known around the office as “Chip.”
There’s a story, true as far as I know. that when a certain book editor was at the Playboy mansion in LA, working with Hef on a project, the great man said that if he (the book editor) wanted something to eat he should go into the kitchen and one of the staff would make him something. In due course the book editor got hungry, went into the kitchen and the staff made him a sandwich. But while he was in there he noticed a chocolate cake on a display stand under a glass cover. He asked if he could have a piece of that. Oh no said the staff that was Mr. Hefner’s own personal chocolate cake and nobody else was allowed to touch it. They baked a new one for him every day.
The book editor said that surely Hef wouldn’t object to him having a single piece. How much chocolate cake could Hef eat in a day? The staff then revealed that in fact Hef never ate any chocolate cake whatsoever. Every morning they baked a fresh chocolate cake and every evening threw it away untouched. A command had come down the line some years back that Hef had to have a fresh chocolate cake every day, the rule was established and that was the way it had been ever since.
Intrigued by this Ruritanian arrangement the book editor asked Hef whether this was actually true. Hef had no idea. He saw there was a new cake in the kitchen every day and indeed he never ate any of it, but he had no memory of ever ordering the arrangement. Hef seemed thoroughly amused by the absurdity of the situation and showed no inclination to rescind the order. It was just one of the winningly eccentric things that go on in the wonderful world of Hef.
Despite Hef’s personal indifference to food – and I’m sure many 84 year olds feel the same way - good food and good drink were always part of the “Playboy philosophy” and The Playboy Gourmet a cookbook by Thomas Mario, who was the magazine’s food and drink expert for a long time, is an exquisite time capsule of certain ideas about sophistication and high living from the late 1950s and 60s. My edition is dated 1977 but there are others, and most of the material inside is copyright 1954 to 1971.
Much of the writing is excruciating and condescending, and it would surely have seemed that way even at the time. The chapter on desserts begins “Although she may one day outgrow valentines, no girl ever outgrows desserts,” and then there’s a bunch of recipes for peaches in champagne, coconut soufflé, and various crepes that need to be flambéed. There’s no recipe for chocolate cake.
For one reason or another we have a few copies of Playboy from the 1960s in the house. I hate to say it, but it’s the car ads that hold most fascination for me at this point in history, those and the occasional bit of fiction by Updike or Nabokov. But some of the food articles are priceless. Below is a scan of a page from one of my favourites, the “urban luau,” as opposed to the dreadfully uncool suburban luau, I suppose. It’s from the June 1966 issue, and again it’s the prose stye that makes it special.
Here’s some wisdom from Mario, “Staging an indoor luau is as easy as poi … A single giant model of a tiki god surrounded by a bounty of island offerings serves far more admirably as a mood setter than a plethora of interior decorator-inspired fish-net coverings and cornball colored-glass globes.” Strange perhaps that the photographer somehow managed to do without a giant model of a tiki god.
The magazine also contains the above ad for Smirnoff. Ah for the days when any advertiser would have wanted Woody Allen plugging their product.