Mary McCormack | 2018 MAKERS Conference
Actress Mary McCormack reads an essay by Lena Dunham that details her mother-daughter relationship. The performance was part of the Real.Life.Stories series directed and produced by Kathy Najimy at the 2018 MAKERS Conference in L.A.
MARY MCCORMACK: I'm happy to be here, and I'm really sorry just right up front that I'm not Lena Dunham.
In so many ways. This is a piece called Cooking by Lena Dunham. I'm going to start this piece the way I start most days, by blaming my mother. Well, first I'll list some things that she excelled at. Protecting us from harm. Explaining adult concepts in ways that didn't terrify her children. Organizing treasure hunts in and around our home. Pretending her hand was a pet alligator named Allie. Defending us at parent-teacher conferences. You haven't shuddered till your mom has told her middle school teacher, your middle school theater teacher, she has no sense of true art. She made every weeknight an act of rebellion, and every weekend a safari through the city, and the only people she ever got angrier at than us were those that didn't recognize what she believed was our Mensa level genius. Average intelligence my ass, she screamed, as she ripped up my lengthy ADHD testing report.
She picked the chicest items in Delia's Warehouse sale catalog, the best nail polishes from Wet n Wild, and she modified our McDonald's takeout order so they had more flavor, less filler. She let me wear her sweaters as dresses. I may have been the last to lose my virginity, but I was the first to have pink hair. She was Cher in Clueless and Cher in Mermaids. She was magic.
This is all, of course, a lead up to what she didn't do. She refused to sit through school plays. She refused to listen when we read our poetry aloud. She refused to get off the phone, ever, or cook. She did not cook. She will fight this assertion like a Long Island-bred samurai. She will say, I slaved over a hot stove just like my Russian grandmother. She will remind me of the Chez Panisse cookbook that sat behind the answering machine, and she will ask, were you ever hungry? No. No, you were not hungry. No, because I cooked.
But her definition of cooking is wildly skewed, and therefore, so is mine. Defrosting a hamburger patty for my father to pan fry? Cooking. Frozen tortellini? I mean, if you talk on the phone, then suddenly realize the stove isn't lit, it's al dente. And the worst offender of all, she'll go to her death defending this horrible gourmet snack of raw cauliflower covered with cumin and mayonnaise.
I never judged her for it. Instead, I became obsessed with takeout. The joy of picking your variant of Chinese chicken, the luxurious reveal of the congealed contents of the carton. To this day, even home-cooked meals made by caring friends cannot match the thrill of the plastic bag of possibility. In my 20s, it was easy to excuse the constant ordering. I lived alone, worked insane hours, and often forgot to take my jeans off to sleep. For a brief time, I even took to ordering a muffin every night and placing it by my bedside for the morning. Cereal plus milk? Waste of time and manual labor.
The circumstances of my life, combined with a penchant for using processed food as a sedative-- that's another story-- meant take out was my religion. I could have anything I wanted without speaking to anyone. Summer rolls and a hamburger? I'll take it all, like some willful child dictator sitting on a throne of wrappers, napkins, and receipts. But as I started to spend time in more adult homes, it was becoming clear this was not the norm.
I've been busy declaring home cooks to be people with random time on their hands while I comforted myself picturing important relevant families picking up a bag from Boston Market. But it turns out some of the world's busiest people-- I love this picture. I can't stop. Love it so much. So many jokes, so little time, really. Anyway, it turns out some of the world's busiest people cook for themselves.
Even people raising kids on their own while holding down two jobs are finding time to shop and to make their own food, an approach that is altogether more sensible, not to mention more affordable. And if they could do it, what was my excuse? After all my work partner, someone whose career I had a pretty solid sense of, because, you know, it's a shared career. Not only cooks for her children nightly, but also cooks to relax. This shocking awareness made my own appetites feel excessive, almost immoral. It was one thing to be starving, quite another to be so fucking lazy about it.
I started to consider changing my ways when I thought about having a family. And when every single magazine and newspaper article screamed at me, gluten's gonna kill you, and sugar is the Antichrist, I realized I had myself a conundrum. We all know home cooking and shared meals are age old ways to bond and unite our clans. We also know that, by cooking, you can control what's being put in your food and your children's food. And the first tenet of many diets is cook ahead, start preparing your own lunches. Why don't you start preparing my grave?
So maybe I can use my busy life as an excuse. We're all pretty busy. But then how do I explain away my aversion to preparing healthful meals? The same way I'm learning to explain so much to myself. I just don't want to. The thrill of a sizzling pan? Lost on me. Pinches of spice? Too restrained. Raw meat? No! Ugh. Can't. So for many years I didn't consider "I just don't want to" as a valid excuse. But our goal, I think, as actualised adults, is to know what bores us, and to lean toward the things that we're passionate about and to spread joy using our specific skill set.
For example, I benefit daily from my own thrifty creativity. My excellent taste in weirdos, my ability to handle blood, vomit, and even the unspeakable third substance, and my passion for essential overlooked media. My theoretical children will have janky but spirited themed parties and an array of radical aunts and uncles, and I won't barf when they barf. They'll know about Gidget and Moesha, and the soundtrack to Tick, Tick, Boom! the Jonathan Larson musical that predated Rent.
I'll write poems for their lunchboxes every day, even at the lunch is a sandwich we pick up in a Lyft. Oh yeah, I can't drive either. I'll keep them healthy with the age-old battle cry of Jewish-American princesses everywhere. Dressing on the side, please! However, I admit I may need to know how to at least turn on the stove. My 13-year-old goddaughter eating pizza in my living room and using her uncanny knack for zeroing in on adult insecurities told me, at least you have to learn about pasta for an emergency. This was after she led me, as confused and sweaty as I might be at a SoulCycle class, down the aisles of our local supermarket.
OK, I conceded, because I will concede her anything. She says a quesadilla is as easy as making toast. That's going on the assumption that I've made toast, but fine. But beautifully roasted chickens and home-whipped cream will have to happen at her normal house, not with her Auntie Mame. I like fantasizing about my currently imaginary children. We'll head to the Pakistan tea house with all the cab drivers changing shifts at 4:30 to grab the $5.99 vegetarian special. They'll get really into those little bags and nuts by the register at Starbucks. And if I fish around for loose change, I'll say, nothing says New York like a street hotdog.
Maybe their friends will tease them about their lunches, like I was teased for having a roll and an apple and a raw hotdog in a plastic bag. No one will want to trade. They can take it. I did. 'Course, fantasies are just that. If I get my ass handed to me by my angry, hungry children, it's gonna be for something, right? I'd rather it be for my meals than my politics. Lord help me if it's both.
Ironically, it was when my little sister and I left the house that my mother began cooking in earnest. Just recently I saw an Instagram in which one of her friends thanked her for her delicious homegrown tomato salad. I mean, who is she? Who is this freak with a ladle, and what did she do with my mother? Nothing, if not surprising, my mother is now learning to make meals for the people she loves. The betrayal stings, but not as much as the burn I got the one time I tried to make lasagna. No apologies. I inherited my appetites. And I'm almost ready to pass them on.