Proust’s Madeleine, But for People Who Grew Up With a Single Dad

Yesterday I made boxed macaroni and cheese. I haven’t made it in a long time, because one of the gifts I got for my 30th birthday was lactose tolerance, but I found a company that makes goat cheese macaroni and cheese that is actually quite good and easier on my nervous Jewish stomach. I mixed in some veggies, because I’m nearly 32 but still need to trick myself to eating vegetables sometimes, and had it for lunch.

But then I did the thing I think makes it best: put it in the fridge, so it could be reheated today. There are few things that taste more like comfort than reheated-in-the-microwave boxed macaroni and cheese.

I honestly think it tastes better that way. I know it sounds gross, but you have to keep in mind how I grew up. After my mother died, my single father had to find a way to feed five kids while also working a demanding job. Neither of my parents had been much for cooking, to begin with — they did like baking, and my dad still makes the best homemade bread ever, but five kids can’t live on bread alone. My dad had to think quickly, and in large quantities. Quality control kind of went out the window: meals were all about what was inexpensive and fast, what would last in the fridge and not taste terrible reheated the next day. And the day after that. And the day after that, unless some of the teenage sons’ friends came over and raided the fridge after school, which they usually did.

Sometimes people will tell me of their food memories, of the thing that sends them into a Proust-ian flood of memories, of their dad’s bolognese or their mom’s curry and how it was the best thing in the world and how they wish they could make it themselves. When they do, I’ll nod politely but say nothing, because I can’t relate. My relationship with food has always been practical. That’s not to say it hasn’t been sentimental, it’s just that the things that make me very sentimental are not the things that one might think.

I don’t know many people who were also raised by single fathers. For those who were (at least, those who also came from a white suburban lower-middle class background), let’s consider these our food memories.

  • Bisquick pancakes — Brunch for dinner? The perfect idea. Eggs are easy to scramble, turkey bacon can be made in a microwave, and it still feels like a novelty to a kid. Eat it in your pajamas and giggle about how you’re breaking routine.

  • Chili — I have not eaten chili in over a year, and it’s still probably the food I’ve eaten more than anything else in my life. It was my Dad’s favorite to make, and one of the easiest.

  • Spaghetti — With sauce out of a jar. I had no idea how people made their own pasta sauce until high school.

  • Spaghetti with chili on top — Best of both worlds! Served with lumpy Bisquick biscuits, of course.

  • Reheated boxed macaroni and cheese The only thing better was when Dad had some time to bake it in the oven with little bread crumbs on top. But that was for special occasions, like birthdays and holidays.

  • Reheated delivery pizza Once my dad left us money for pizza and my brother Jon called for pizza at one place and my brother Joel called for another, neither knowing of the other’s intentions. We ended up with something like four or five pizzas, and my dad ended up with no change.

  • Eleven soft tacos From Taco Bell OK, this just happened the one time, and once again, it was a mistake on my brother’s part: he passed around a paper to take an order, I wrote down two in tally marks, and he misread it. He came home with a huge bag full of cheap tacos. We all laughed, but this being a family of three teenage and preteen boys, they were gone pretty fast.

  • Campbell’s Soup, served out of the giant family size cans —A day’s sodium in every bite, especially when you add mountains of saltines to it, as I would.

  • Stouffer’s, endless amounts of Stouffer’s Two days’ sodium in one bite! I was always angry when my dad made this instead of the good macaroni and cheese.

  • Country Crock — We had butter, too, but it wasn’t really because we needed the Country Crock. It was so we could eat…

  • Something that wasn’t Country Crock, leftover, served out of the Country Crock container — Nine times out of ten? Chili.

  • Homemade pizza made from Bisquick dough, jarred tomato sauce, and cheddar cheese — Maybe some “Cinderella” cheese, too, as I used to call it.

  • Goldfish crackers Never poured into a bowl, but grabbed in tiny handfuls from one of those seemingly endless family-size cartons from Smart and Final.

  • Cheerios and milk, drank out of a cup — Because you’ve got to have a snack while you’re doing your homework in front of the TV, right?

  • The bagged Malt-o-Meal cereals — Always called something like “Coco Rounds” or “Fruit Rings” or something like that. We ate so much cereal and milk in our house that at one time we were going through a gallon of milk a day. My dad would have to scope out the places it was cheapest (usually 7-11, interestingly) and bring home multiple gallons on his drive home from work every day.

  • Cream of Wheat — I can feel my iron levels go up just thinking about it.

  • The ice cream that comes in clear plastic buckets — I could write a book on this stuff. And yes, it is “stuff,” a “frozen dairy dessert” and not “ice cream,” as you will see in the picture. All the flavors taste the same, even when it’s neapolitan and you were supposed to be getting three flavors in one. Moses Storm has a great bit about growing up poor and only being able to eat the bucket ice cream. Oh, the things you could do with those buckets!)

  • Milkshakes made with the ice cream that came in buckets — The only way to make that stuff taste good! My dad’s milkshakes were somehow always fantastic, he might as well have been an alchemist.

  • Slightly freezer burned ice cream sandwiches — They haven’t expired yet, they’ve just been in the back for a while, they’re still good!

  • Moose Tracks ice cream — One of my brothers discovered this at college and brought it back to us when he came home. Since we only had it when he visited, we thought it was very fancy, and would sit around eating massive bowls of the stuff while listening to Fastball’s “The Way” and “Fire Escape.”

  • Betty Crocker’s Cake Mix and Canned Frosting — One of two options for birthdays, the other, of course, being…

  • Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream Cake — Everyone seemed to agree that the best possible combination was mint chocolate chip ice cream and chocolate cake, and with a lot of frosting roses, though one year I had to settle for a white cake with nothing but black frosting. We called it “the funeral cake.” Actually quite fitting for my morose, quasi-goth twelve-year-old self.

  • Slim-fast — Soylent before soylent!

  • Smucker’s Goober Grape or Goober Strawberry — They say it’s a mix of peanut butter and jelly, but it is basically just sugar that you can spread, and we’d have to try to get our babysitter to buy it in secret. We already knew it was a bad thing to eat and our dad wouldn’t approve.

  • The orange juice that comes in a frozen tube — There was a whole routine: let it thaw a little, dump it into the pitcher, fill it with water from the sink (this was before we knew how bad LA water was) get out the weird potato mashing tool and crush it down, stir and drink. Nevermind that we had actual citrus trees in our backyard, this was what we drank.

Things changed after my father remarried: not only did my stepmother like cooking more than he did, but my new step-uncle was a chef. We’d spend lots of time at our cousins’ house eating food prepared very differently, with time and care, and you could tell it was a relief for my dad. Still, I hope he knows how fondly I think of those years, and how I’ll always think of him when I eat something fast, inexpensive, and in large quantities.

Stuff I Did This Week: SPEAKING OF FOOD! I had the honor of being on Christy’s Kitchen Throwback, an amazing and adorable cooking show on Youtube, hosted by Christy Carlson Romano, a.k.a. Kim Possible, Ren from Even Stevens, and a fellow Big Hero 6 villain, Trina! We talked about Matilda and Disney and first kisses and so much more! If you’re feeling nostalgic, want to learn to make a berry tart, or see Christy EAT A BUG, this is the video for you! It’s one of the most fun shows I’ve done in a long time.

Fake BBC Show Title of the Week: Adversary (a crime show that’s been running for something like fifty years)

Midnight Confession #16: Imagine Fun

  
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A new installment of my late-night audio confessions!

Whoa-oh-OH-oh! Music aside, they’re both pretty obnoxious band names. Putting punctuation in your band name so it looks like people are saying “I don’t like fun.” when they dislike your band? Yeah, that’s annoying. (Although, I think by a lot of people’s standards, I don’t really like fun. I’m extremely risk-averse and very bad at enjoying things in the moment. Maybe it’s genetic: someone once told me there’s no word for “fun” in Russian.)

It reminds me of when I was in fourth grade and was really frustrated with my teacher’s insistence that my oral book report have an opening line that “grabbed their attention.” “Hey Dad, how’s this for an opener,” I said to him, “‘FIRE! Just kidding, but now that I have your attention, let me tell you about Ribsy by Beverly Cleary!’”

My dad was taken aback for a second, then, being the champion understater that he is, told me, “Well, that’s not exactly great literature.”

He was right. Instead, I opened by asking if anyone had anyone had ever heard of a dog “talking” on the phone, after a scene where the lost dog was found by a family who recognized him from the signs, called his owner, and let the dog bark over the phone. But I don’t think I did a very good job of explaining it, because when I asked if there were any questions, one kid immediately raised his hand and said, “When in the book does the dog learn how to talk?”

Talking dogs. Now that’s fun.

Fake BBC Show of the Week: Twizzled!

Midnight Confession #15: Drive Me Crazy

  
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Another installment of my embarrassing audio stories!

Driving is SCARY, you guys. It didn’t seem that scary when I was first learning as a teenager, but became increasingly more terrifying in the subsequent years I spent not driving. And I saw a lot of scary things on the subway: once I nodded off after a long day at Publicolor (I had an uncanny ability to fall asleep on the train and still wake up at the right stop), and woke up a few stops before home because I felt like I was being shoved. It turns out a guy sitting across from the guy next to me took offense to something he’d said, and decided to beat the crap out of him. I felt like I was being shoved because the guy next to me was getting pummeled.

What did I do? What everyone else did: stood up, and got as far away from the two fighters as we could until the next stop, when the conductor threw the instigator off the train. The other guy spit a mouthful of blood onto the floor and paced back and forth, high on adrenaline, yelling “Fuck! Fuck!” over and over again. The rest of us simply got off the train car, moved to the next train car down, and continued our ride as usual.

Still, driving is scarier. I know it’s fallacious to assume something “unnatural” is dangerous, but I do think piloting a two-ton machine is a dangerous, unnatural thing, and we completely take it for granted. I also think it’s easier to learn how to do it when you’re a teenager, because your own mortality is beyond your comprehension. Unless you’re a goth, and even then, you’re only thinking about danger and mortality in an abstract, poetic sense.

Anyway, I never got my license, and never had a goth phase, but I guess it’s never too late for either. And apparently, it’s never too late for acne. Sigh.

Fake BBC Show of the Week: Three Days To the Jumble Sale!

The Best (and Only Types of) Cole Porter Songs

I owe Cole Porter an apology. I no longer think it’s true that anyone with a pitch pipe and a rhyming dictionary could write his songs. While he still isn’t my favorite, I do think he was a great American songwriter.

The problem is his musicals. They’re all terrible. But, as has been pointed out to me, I really should give him leeway there, because musical theater didn’t really exist back in his day. Pretty much every musical was a revue flimsily tied together with some stupid jokes. It was decades before Oklahoma and its use of dance as narrative, and even though Show Boat had recently introduced the idea of handling serious issues in a musical (however clumsily), it hadn’t quite caught on yet.

I still can’t say that I’ve ever really enjoyed a Cole Porter musical, because I don’t like when songs don’t advance a plot. I also do feel like he wrote a lot of the same kind of songs over and over again. Still, he did write a lot of classics, and what makes them a thousand times better is their subtext. Here are, as far as I know, the best (and only kinds) of Cole Porter songs:

  • What If We Threw a Party (And Had Gay Sex)?

  • You’re All Right, Kid, and I Very Much Enjoy Having Gay Sex With You

  • You’re All Right, Kid, Even If We Haven’t Had Gay Sex (Yet)

  • I Don’t Really Enjoy Drugs, But I Do Enjoy Gay Sex

  • I Sure Do Enjoy Drugs, And Also Gay Sex

  • I Used to Have a Lot of (Gay) Sex

  • Here’s How to Have a Lot of (Gay) Sex

  • Working in the Theater Sure is Swell, And So Is Gay Sex

  • Men Are Terrible, Which is Why I Have Gay Sex

  • Men Are Great, Which is Why I Have Gay Sex

  • We Go to Yale and Have Gay Sex

  • This City Rules, Let’s Dance and Have Gay Sex

  • This City Sucks, Let’s Dance and Have Gay Sex

  • I Am Not Having Gay Sex, But That’s Only Because I Am Busy Bilking Rich Men Out of Their Money

  • I Am Having Gay Sex and I Am Busy Bilking Rich Men Out of Their Money

  • Even Grandma’s Having Gay Sex These Days!

  • How Many Times Can I Work the Word “Gigolo” Into This Song Before Someone Realizes It’s About Gay Sex

  • Fuck It, I’m Just Going to List a Bunch of Adjectives About How Great Gay Sex Is

Fake BBC Show of the Week: Song and Supper

Ten Years of Fresh Ground Pepper

There was a time when the most important thing in my life was Fresh Ground Pepper.

Not the spice itself, though that too is good. Fresh Ground Pepper was, and still is, something else, something I’m not quite sure I can fully explain. It started as a monthly festival to celebrate and make new art and theater — fresh new works, hence the name. When my friends Andrew Neisler and Jaclyn Backhaus started it, it was 2009, and I had just graduated.

It was a bleak time in my life. I spent my first two years out of college, jobless, heartbroken, and miserable. The recession was in full swing, and I had no idea what I was doing with my life. I was too terrified to write, and too depressed to do much of anything else. It got to the point where I’d try to make lists of the very basic, everyday things I had to look forward to, the things that kept me going: on Sundays I’d meet with my writing group. Mondays, I had therapy. Tuesday, a new episode of my favorite podcast came out, and so on. Anything to get through the week.

Then one day, in early 2010, I got a Facebook invite from Andrew and Jaclyn asking “Want to be part of a parade?” It was cold and rainy that say, but I needed to get out of the apartment, so I went, tracking them down somewhere around Tompkins Square Park. People — some of whom I knew, some of whom I didn’t — were blowing whistles and shaking maracas. It was loud enough to be cheerful, but not too loud as to be obnoxious; just enough to cheer up a gray day. We were having fun, and people passing us smiled. I began to wish that I had something to make music with, and rummaged through my backpack. Fortunately, I’m an asthmatic hypochondriac, so I brought out my bottle of Mucinex, and started rattling it on the beat, like it was a shaker. Jaclyn saw me doing it and laughed. “MU-CI-NEX! MU-CIN-EX!” she started to chant, and then so did I, and so did everyone else around us.

I felt light in a way I hadn’t in the past two years. It had been fun, and just ridiculous enough to get me out of my head, and out of the house. After that, I went to every Fresh Ground Pepper event I could.

Stivo Arnoczy performing a monologue I wrote, called “Wild Card,” based on a costume design sketch (and brought to life) by Matt Allamon, at an FGP event in 2011.

It was different every month: sometimes it would be people staging a Be Kind Rewind-style re-staging of a musical like Grease or Les Miserables. Sometimes it was an award show for whoever could find the best YouTube videos. Sometimes it was a festival of full-length plays, or a festival of only comedic plays, or a festival of two-minute plays — I was lucky enough to have my writing featured in all three. Once they did a tribute to Rod Serling, and another time, to the Spice Girls. Performances at FGP events could be part of something longer someone was working on, or something we’d only see once. It brought to mind something a theater school professor, someone I otherwise usually found pretentious, once said: “‘Experimental theater’ used to be an experiment. That was the key component, trying new and different things, seeing what worked, what didn’t, and what we could learn from it. Now ‘experimental theater’ mostly just means ‘weird.’”

Playing an irate Miss Lynch (which I didn’t know I’d be doing until about five minutes prior) during FGP’s offbeat staging of Grease in 2012. That’s Doug Paulson as Danny in the back, photo taken by Avery McCarthy.

Some stuff at FGP was weird, but even then, it was entertaining. One time they had four different canvases set up in four different parts of an apartment, and after half an hour, four artists would switch canvases. A painting I thought was beautiful was painted over, cut apart, assembled into different pieces, made into a sculpture. I felt sad to see the original painting go, but glad I’d gotten to see it in the first place, and pleasantly surprised to see what it had become.

When I look back at photos of myself in my early twenties, the ones where I look my happiest were all taken at FGP events. They helped me develop my plays Thank You Ten and Sheeple, as well as giving me a chance to write and perform many other pieces. But they also taught me something invaluable, something I needed to know: that I was appreciated, that I had something to offer. People smiled whenever I arrived at an event, and were happy to integrate me into their works, or just to have me as an audience member. At one point I started bring home-baked cookies and cupcakes, and would either give them out, or offer to let them be sold them at concessions. I made new friends, and once or twice even dated someone I’d met there. There was none of the exclusivity so many other Brooklyn hipster art collectives were about: people were friendly, and it was pay-what-you-can. FGP was all about welcoming, encouraging, and celebrating new artists — and anyone could be an artist.

Above: actors Roe Hartrampf and Cecilia Kim look over their lines for the staged reading of Sheeple, while I grin like a maniac, at FGP’s Playground festival.

At some point, I stopped being able attend FGP events as religiously. One of my jobs started very early on Saturday mornings, so any events on Friday nights were out (though I did once fall asleep at a friends’ nearby apartment after an event, and had two of them literally carry me into an extra room so I could sleep through the after-party and still wake up early), and by Saturday night, I’d be too tired. On Sundays, I’d usually be in a storytelling show, or be hosting my own. By my last few years in New York, I’d already started to check out of life there, feeling my need to be back in California grow with every trip home. I was trying not to get too attached, because I already knew I’d be leaving soon.

But I never forgot Fresh Ground Pepper, and the sense of community and purpose it gave me. It was a fun place to try something new, to take chances and open yourself up, without any judgment. Is it an exaggeration to say that it changed my life? That it kept me going when I felt like I couldn’t? I don’t think it is. Just thinking back on how much hope and fun it gave me brings tears to my eyes.

Last week, it was FGP’s tenth birthday. Andrew Neisler wrote to ask me if I would submit a video or statement they could use on social media, but still in my post-A-Camp work catch-up haze, I missed the deadline. Once again, I felt myself tear up, because there are few things more important to me than giving credit where it’s due, and being thankful and gracious to those who helped you the most. I will forever be grateful to Jaclyn and Andrew — who have gone on to fantastic theater careers of their own (please read or see Men on Boats, and if you have a theater program with a lot of girls or women please stage it, it is truly wonderful). And I’m grateful to everyone who made FGP what it is, and what it continues to be: a creative hub, a laboratory, a home. May it go on for many more tens of years!

Fake BBC Show of the Week: The Jaffa Cake Tribunal (who stole the biscuits from the biscuit tin?)

Over on the Subscriber Section: I open up about one of my worst, most embarrassing habits. Click below to learn more:

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