Excerpt from piece originally published in The New Yorker
by Lena Dunham
Family legend: I am four. It’s midafternoon, between mealtimes, and my mother has a friend over. They are chatting in the living room and I am playing in a corner when the buzzer rings (another guest has arrived) and I cry out, “Dinner’s here!”
We are being raised on delivery, but it’s a fight. Every day around 6 p.m., my parents come home (from their studios, which are two floors below in our building, on Broadway, with its rounded fire escapes) and the dinner debate rages.
Our nanny is an Irish girl who was in a car accident that made it so her mouth opens only a little bit. Once a day, she has to stretch her jaw with a special plastic tool resembling a shoehorn, and sometimes she lets me operate it. When she heads home for the day, she leaves us with various food options that we reject. “It’s too mushy,” I explain re shepherd’s pie.
“I have ravioli,” my mother says. “I could heat that up and cut up a cucumber.”
My sister Grace and I moan and mope, acting like political radicals refusing to consume food until there is a major policy change. Finally, the drawer of menus slides open. Will it be Empire Szechuan? Lupe’s East L.A. Kitchen? The Malaysian place that serves the mysteriously named “thousand layer pancake”?
“We can’t order every night,” my father says. “It’s a waste of money. It has too much oil. We have a fridge full of really nice, healthy food.”
But they can take only so much resistance. When the food arrives, I insist on shovelling it right out of the container, eyes trained on the TV. I am not deterred even when I choke on a piece of beef with broccoli and my mother has to stick her finger down my throat to unclog my airway.
Deep inside, I know that my pathological resistance to homemade cuisine comes from something more than a desire to drain my parents of their financial resources and waste endless quantities of cardboard and Styrofoam. There is something so comforting, so magical, about the meal simply arriving, already smelling like itself, laid out like a road map to satisfaction. I want dinner to be perfect every single day. Sometimes as I eat I do a commercial for what I’m consuming: “Enjoy your day the moo-shu-pancake way! So light and tangy your head will explode.”
At school every Christmas, we do something for God’s Love We Deliver, where we decorate the paper bags that contain delivery meals for homebound AIDS patients. When the bags are all decorated, we string them up across the Quaker meetinghouse for our holiday assembly. My bag isn’t very good—it’s sparsely decorated with hearts and stars—because I am too busy asking about the menu. Does the food arrive hot? Do the AIDS patients have choices, or do they just have to eat whatever turns up?
My mother’s best friend, Sarah, is also an artist, also a mother of two, busy and modern. Sarah cooks for her children constantly, and it makes my mother crazy with guilt.
“Sarah prepares a homemade meal every night,” she tells us. “No matter what’s going on, she makes the time for that.” The only snack my mom ever makes is raw cauliflower with a little cup of mayonnaise for dipping.
“People have different priorities,” my father tells her. So she starts taking a cooking class from my friend Ruth’s mom, Jane. She only teaches you how to make impractical foods, like Cheddar biscuits the size of nickels, which take two hours to prepare, or a vat of caramel. Jane believes in maximizing your time, and so she gets her exercise by jogging in place in her beautifully renovated kitchen. Jane makes Ruth and me taste-test things, but the portions are always too small for me to get any sense at all. One winter, Ruth’s rabbit dies of diarrhea and Ruth’s parents immediately replace it with an identical one.
Sarah dies in June of 2013. It’s sudden—she falls down in the morning and is done at night—and my mother calls me from a cab, unsure where she is going. I tell her I’ll meet her at home in an hour. I call my father and ask if I should pick up dinner, suggesting the Pakistani place my mother loves as long as we remember to get plenty of chutney.
“No,” he tells me. “She just wants something home-cooked.”
My sister is twenty-one now, and prepares food the way college students do: portions to feed an army, an odd mixture of disparate ethnic seasonings and products that don’t have corporate origins. She broils fish (not using a recipe, despite the fact that she stole my only cookbook, the one that accompanied my New Year’s resolution to make more soup), and my mother looks glazed as she scrapes it around on her plate.
In August, we scatter Sarah’s ashes in her garden. You have a choice of distributing them with a spoon or with your hands. I choose hands, because there is a wait for the spoon, and also it seems squeamish. Afterward, we move inside for a big lunch, the kind that Sarah would have prepared effortlessly.
Since the day Sarah died, my mother has been inordinately focussed on food preparation. My father is supportive of the initiative, though he can swing far in the other direction: once, when I was in high school, my mother went away for a week and he insisted we use nothing but plastic utensils and paper napkins.
Gordon, the man behind the meal, has a sense of humor that lies somewhere between the Catskills and Rikers Island. He tells me, a glint in his eye, “I added some ashes to the paella.”
“Funny, funny,” I mutter. I’ve always found paella kind of pretentious, a food that wants to be everything and is therefore nothing. Much like the mid-nineties trend of wearing a skirt over pants, it seems the height of indecision. But everyone regards the pan of tiny squids and clamshells and fatty sausage as if it were a great work of art.
On the car ride home, my mother breaks the silence to announce, “Gordon put ashes in the paella.”
“He was joking!” I shriek from the back seat, as if I were four again.
“I don’t think he was,” she says. “I think he put a small amount of ash into the paella.”
“No, he didn’t,” Grace snorts.
“He was joking,” my father says firmly, keeping his eyes on the road. “And anyone who’d believe otherwise is just out to lunch.”