The Wagon Train

laraine_newmanFrancois Truffaut has been famously quoted about the process of making a movie being similar to a wagon train crossing the country.  You start out the journey with high hopes and the spirit of adventure and halfway through, you just want to get there alive.

That’s pretty much what my journey with cooking has been like.  I seduced my husband with duck breast and wild rice pancakes with apricot sauce.  That was nothin’.  I really loved to cook.  People were always surprised by that and I was always surprised they were surprised.  What? Women in comedy can’t cook?  Every Hungarian Jewish woman has to be a good cook. It’s biological destiny.

The thing is, today, I’m a lousy cook.  How, you may ask did that happen? Children. And I include my husband in that category.  Let’s start with a description of the beginning of the wagon train.  My enthusiasm for cooking was the sort that could only be borne of the task being optional and infrequent.

I created marvelous things.  A black bean and butternut squash soup comes to mind.

1 leek
1 carrot
1 stalk celery
1 large butternut squash
1 large yam
1 can Goya black beans
Chicken stock
White pepper
Butter or olive oil

Bake butternut squash and yam in their skin after piercing them with a fork (350° F for 45 minutes)
Let cool. Then peel the squash and remove the seeds and cut into cubes, peel the yam and cut into cubes.
Sautee holy trinity (minced leek, carrot, and celery) until soft
You can sautee in butter or oil, but butter tastes better, let’s face it
Add the squash and yam and coat with the butter and add the stock to cover
Add the black beans and cook for 25 minutes (let simmer)
Use an immersion blender and season with nutmeg, salt, and white pepper.  Agave is optional if you like it sweeter. Add chicken stock if it’s too thick.

This was a big hit with friends.  I even gave this recipe to professional cooks who raved about it. When the kids came along, a bunch of moms in the neighborhood organized rotating playgroups.   Like a phoenix rising from the ashes of the pyre of the out of work actress, I would be the Martha Stewart of Westwood….only requiring a little more sleep and not so good at crafts.

The praise. The sighs. The eyes looking heavenward with rapture at the taste of my food was the only “applause” I was getting at the time. I’d found a way to make a fat free cheesecake by straining yogurt for days on end. I bound my graham cracker crust with agave and egg whites, and voila!  My friend Stephanie, who was constantly battling her weight at the time, wept when she took the first bite. It was The Emperor and The Nightingale all over again.

But then my children started to have ‘free will’.  Developmentally appropriate.  Soul killing for me.  The first time my young child snubbed the dish I lovingly prepared for her and crinkled up her nose, I wanted to grab her by the ankles and slam her against the wall. “You know the ‘try it once’ rule honey, just taste it” Whereupon Lena’s pink tongue extruded out of her mouth in a posture of revulsion (and yes, it’s possible for a tongue to assume a posture) the tip of it barely grazing the chicken tender I’d cooked to perfection, finally cracking the code of crispy on the outside, moist on the inside. Her tongue whipped back like a tape measure as she shook her head vehemently from side to side.

At this point, I became the child. My eyes welled up at the injustice of having to deal with an irrational being.  A being that had the power to make me feel like a million bucks if I could just get some fucking broccoli into her. My husband chose this point to come out of the closet and admit that he had an issue with texture and that he didn’t really like meat of any kind. In fact, he generally preferred foods that were white.  An anathema to anyone trying to nurture healthy growing creatures. The wagon train had run out of water and food in the middle of the Mojave Desert.

There were also many self-imposed tyrannies I suffered. One was the statistical evidence that families that ate together produced healthier happier kids. Supposedly higher IQs. Every time I failed to corral us all together, I had visions of my daughters dead in the gutter with a needle in their arms. Budget also became an issue as their lives became more diverse and, ahem, expensive.  I thought I’d become one of those people you see profiled on 20/20, who buys a house by clipping coupons and playing the system. I started to expect myself to be the kind of penny pincher and money manager I’m not now, nor will ever be. Brutal.

I’d make homemade cauldrons of pinto beans after a fella at Poquito Mas ‘spilled the beans’ and told me how they made theirs. I thought it was damn good, but no dice with the kids.  They liked it once and then never again. Then I considered frozen food. Whole Foods had chicken tenders that were actually raw so when you cooked them, they were  really fresh, juicy and quite good.  Again, they liked it once. Once.  I bought boxes of them and they sat idle getting freezer burn. If you were to switch from the wagon train analogy and use the movie making one, these futile gestures would be the equivalent of having a star drop out, losing your financing, cost overruns and no distribution.

But this is what sent the actress into her trailer, refusing to come out. This is what removed any further notion of being a good cook: Our family’s schedules became insane and my life was about being entombed in my carpool schedule.   Everyone would arrive home around the same time, famished and cranky.  I wouldn’t have planned anything. I must have somehow engaged in magical thinking.  Where the devil did I think dinner was going to come from? This was when I started to regress in my skills.  And when I turned into that raging banshee that shrieks “But you liked it last week!!! What’s changed?? For God’s sake this isn’t a restaurant!! I’m not making it any different!! I give up! Fend for yourselves! I quit!!”

But here is the moment that had the failure committee doing a can can across my psyche:  I’d made my Yankee Pot Roast.  A dish I thought I could count on.  A dish the kids even liked as leftovers.  When I offered it to Hannah the other day she turned it down.  “Why not, you love this?” “Not really mom, I just ate it to make you happy.”  Charity. I was getting charity eating from my kids.  I’d turned them into the kids that made themselves breakfast and packed their own lunches in the morning because their alcoholic mother was passed out on the couch. But they’d defend me to the end. They still say their mom is a good cook.  They deserve better really. Our family needs some form of INTERVENTION. I’m just beginning to sadly surrender to the fact that it starts with a menu and the phone. 


Laraine Newman is a founding member of The Groundlings Theatre Company and an original cast member of Saturday Night Live.  She lives in her hometown of Los Angeles with her husband and two daughters. 



Laraine Newman is interviewed at Mental Floss