The former head of content at Playboy reflects on Hugh Hefner's pioneering legacy in food journalism.
While Hugh Hefner is rightly given credit for taking the notion of the house party to epic proportions and for franchising urbane sophistication with the Playboy clubs, it’s easy to miss his influence on food and drink. By today’s measures Hef was by no means a foodie in his personal life—it was rumored he had a split pea soup recipe sent ahead to restaurants before he arrived so while the Girls Next Door dined à la carte, he would get to eat and drink what he liked having at home (his go-to cocktail was Jack and Pepsi). But in the pages of Playboy, Hef was one of the first proponents of the culinarily-conscious man.
There's that famous Hef quote: "I've never thought of Playboy quite frankly as a sex magazine. I always thought of it as a lifestyle magazine in which sex was one important ingredient."
'Ingredient' is the key word. From the very beginning, food was an essential part of the buffet of manly pursuits Hef presented to the American male.
In 1954, a year after Playboy launched, Hef brought on a food and drinks editor named Thomas Mario who remained on staff for the next 30 years or so. His early stories were discursive, 2,000-word think pieces on every permutation of gustatory and alcoholic pleasure. They’re the exact same stories culinary publications and men’s magazines (what’s left of them) are championing today: why you should eat oysters and how to dress them, why you need to get over your juniper aversion and start drinking gin, and exactly what strain of wheat and cooking method makes the perfect al dente pasta. All this starting in the 1950s.
Mario had a flair for setting the scene: "You pour a few dry martinis from a thermos and your appetites are sharpened into definite focus," he wrote in 1954. "The smell of burning apple wood and the crackling fire beneath the thick prime steaks makes her secretly swoon."
But this was all window-dressing for a column that limned the differences between Riesling and liebfraumilch and asked guys to direct their butchers to the proper grinder setting for hamburger and be as precise about flame control as a train engineer. Of course no civilian could ever achieve these fantastical scenes of seduction and culinary mastery that Mario presented. And really what Mario was doing was respecting the template that Hef established with his first issue in which he conjured an impossible aspirational lifestyle of philosophy, entertainment, culture, and sex, all to a cool jazz soundtrack.
Internally there was a Hef mandate of "sell the sizzle, not the steak." And so it was in the magazine. With the nudes: there they were, but alongside essays about free speech and integration. With the reviews of hot rods and stereos, but additionally articles on gun control. And with the food section: there were stories that began with discussion of the aphrodisiacal properties of oysters and ended with an exploration of the flavor differences between Lynnhavens and Chincoteagues. By 1972 the back catalog of recipes from Playboy was so robust that it yielded a cookbook The Playboy Gourmet, some 500 pages long at 800 recipes deep with recipes for suckling pig and jambalaya and a section devoted to avocados. Playboy’s Host and Bar Book, while not quite at the Jerry Thomas level, is required reading among bartenders for its kitsch meets cocktail celebration of home mixology.
I knew none of this when I was hired at Playboy some six years ago and took a job that involved, among other things, editing the food and drink section. In my first couple of weeks I learned that while some writers and celebrities didn't want to appear in Playboy, every chef and bartender did. "Fuck yeah" was frequently the immediate answer to the request to being interviewed, developing a recipe, or writing a story for the magazine. In 2014 Playboy won the International Association of Culinary Professionals award for best food column. When Russ Parsons of the LA Times presented the award at the ceremony in Chicago he revised that time-worn joke about Playboy when he said "I read it for the recipes." And, like that joke about reading it for the articles, it turns out not to be a joke at all.