Poppy, age 35

I was thinking about toast. Which I almost never eat anymore, but has this really nourishing, familial, sort of nostalgia feel to me. A healing kind of feeling to me. So every once in a while now I have this craving for toast and it’s always a psychological, kind of emotional, craving. Not a craving to eat bread, really. I don’t eat that much bread, because of the Patriarchy. Because I hate my body, or whatever. So then, I have a memory of being at my goddess mother’s, kind of a close family friend’s house, and she would always burn the toast. And so her house would always smell like burnt toast, not like the severely burnt toast, but just the lightly burnt toast which smells really, really good. And so on her table would always be slices of bread that she had just scraped the burnt bits off, and little piles of burnt bits. Then, she would eat it with cream cheese. So I can taste that, and also smell it, and also see it. I think I must have had toast at home as well. I must have. And I think also when I was sick, when I had an upset stomach, my mother always advised kind of bland carbs. So maybe that’s why it has that healing feeling to me. I would eat toast, maybe with honey, after feeling sick and it would be the most delicious thing. Like if I spent two days throwing up or something and then that was the first thing I ate, that was particularly delicious.

And we’re vegetarians

Our roots are Russian and Romanian, Eastern European. Which I don’t think affected our food so much except that at a certain point we started making borscht on Christmas eve, even though we’re Jewish atheists and don’t really do Christmas. So that was our hearkening back to our roots. And we’re vegetarians. We make vegetarian borscht. I was raised by a single mother. And until I was 9 I had a grandmother who I saw pretty regularly, who had also become a vegetarian after my mother did. I remember hearing that she was a really good cook but I don’t actually have food memories of meals she prepared. I remember she had a giant garden and that she made things with vegetables from the garden. And I think I liked them.

When I was younger I ate a lot of different things and then I got more picky for a period of time after my earliest childhood. So I think I ate these vegetable and liked them. I have vague, vague memories of them, but nothing very clear. But, yes, my mother was really in charge of most of things that I ate for many years. And because she was vegetarian and health conscious we had the healthy alternatives to the things that all of my friends were eating. So my friends would bring fruit rollups to school for instance and I would bring fruit leathers which were tough and naturally sweetened, but kind of satisfying in a way.

I was born in New York City but then spent most of my early culinary years in Vermont, first in Burlington and then in Montpelier. And because we were in Vermont everybody was kind of inundated with the culture of Cabot Cheddar Cheese and Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream and Lake Champlain Chocolate. We had a lot of school trips that went to one or all three of those factories. So cheese, ice cream, and chocolate – dairy products were very, very big in Vermont.

When we lived in Burlington and then when we lived in Montpelier we’d go to a great Ben and Jerry’s shop in Burlington. The smell was so distinctive. It was like the smell of cold tile and kind of frost and then also hot fudge. Phish Food wasn’t around when I was really little but I remember when it came out and I really liked Phish Food, which has marshmallow and caramel and chocolate fish in it and it’s chocolate ice cream. And also Chunky Monkey. I think I remember eating some when I went to a conference with my mother and someone had a pint of Chunky Monkey in their freezer. I remember that. Chocolate ice cream in general. There’s a photo of me with a chocolate ice cream cone on the beach and it’s like all over my body. It was a very visceral, tactile experience eating ice cream when I was a kid.

Now, when people say, Do you have any dietary restrictions? I say, Well, I don’t have any restrictions, but I don’t eat a lot of carbs because of Patriarchy. And then people say, What do you mean? And then I say, Well, I like healthy food because I was raised on healthy food. I mean, I know people who were raised on healthy food and rebelled against it and now don’t eat it. But I really developed a taste for it, so I actually prefer it. I don’t love fried food. I don’t love junk food. I don’t love sweets, even. I love vegetables. I love grains. I love cheese. And salt. So, I self regulate.

If I lived outside of the Patriarchy, I think I would still eat very healthfully. But I just would eat differently because I have this fear of carbs – because I just don’t like my body. When I shop on my own, I don’t buy a lot of cheese. I buy goat cheese and feta. I eat a lot of seafood. I don’t cook meat. I eat a lot of eggs. But I don’t actually eat a lot of unhealthy fats. I don’t like bacon. I self regulate based on my tastes in a very healthy way. What I cut out is bread, pasta. I do eat rice. I just cut down on carbs and things like pizza, and french fries, and onion rings. I just don’t eat those things as much as I maybe would like to. I didn’t start being aware of disliking my body until maybe 8th grade. And mostly after I went through puberty. I don’t think it was carbs yet, carbs are more recent. I’m just saying with toast, I don’t eat so much of it anymore, but I have this nostalgic connection with it.

I always really loved Mexican food, or whatever version of “Mexican food.” I can’t remember how old I was but pretty young, we had someone rent a room in our house for a couple of weeks and she introduced into our lives tuna melts and nachos. And after she left, nachos became a part of our rotation. She put broccoli on them and beans and lots of melted cheese, and salsa. And I got really, really into nachos. And so we periodically would have them for dinner, but then also the first thing I ever cooked on my own, when I was in high school. I remember coming home after school and just making a big pile of nachos in the toaster oven with a ton of cheese. And I also remember in Montpelier there was a restaurant called Julio’s, and they had something called the Poor Man’s Nachos, where they would just dump out all the little chips at the bottom of the bag, and cover them in beans and cheese and stuff and they were so good. Texturally it was just so good. And there was so much more cheese because there were no layers of just chips. Oh my god, it was so good.

And once, my grandmother – because she was very healthy but she loved being a grandmother, and treating me – and so once we had this day where she made me pancakes in the morning and then we went to Pizza Hut for lunch. God knows why. I don’t know how often in my life I’ve ever been to Pizza Hut. And then for dinner we went to Julio’s, and then I threw up all over the table. I also had a really sensitive stomach. And still do, kind of, but had a really sensitive stomach. I think more emotionally. But often I got car sick. I remember many, many times I threw up, either because of car sickness or food or emotions. When my grandmother died there was a memorial service for her and afterwards we went to this apartment in Westbeth on Bethune Street [in New York City] and there was food. I was really sad but I was little too. I was 9, and I ate and ate and ate. And then we went back to our friend’s apartment and I threw up in their bed.

I’ve never been an emotional eater. I never ate when I was sad. In fact, when I’m sad, usually, I’m not hungry. So I never really understood “ice-cream-when-you’re-sad.” That was a particular moment with my grandmother. But actually that hasn’t been a practice of mine. But having a sort of emotionally sensitive stomach has been a thing. When I’m sad or anxious or whatever, I don’t have an appetite. I never really binge, although I definitely have had a conflicted relationship with food. In middle school, early high school, I was like, “god, I wish I could be anorexic.” I never could be, but in the summer before 9th grade, or maybe it was 8th grade, I had visited my childhood friend in Vermont and she was macrobiotic. And I’m sure she was only macrobiotic because of her hatred of her body. But then I became macrobiotic for a little while — or my own version of macrobiotic — to lose weight. Which is so sad because I look back at photos of myself at that time and I didn’t need to lose weight. I was skinny. I was pre-puberty. But I had a very different understanding of my body. For a while when I was macrobiotic I would try to find ways of treating myself that were better than actual treats. So I remember sometimes at night I would have granola mixed with cocoa powder as a dessert, which is not [truly] macrobiotic.

These incredibly nourishing meals

I went to summer camp for six years and then worked there for a year. We had this amazing cook.We had the same head chef for all of those years, Mary, who was six feet tall with a long black braid and was also a storyteller. She was an amazing cook and also we all had to work in the kitchen at times and got to choose to work in the kitchen at other times. That food was so incredibly nourishing. Just to be out, working all day — because this was a really active camp – building cabins or doing farm chores, or hiking or whatever, and then to come in and have these incredibly nourishing meals. They were in bowls. And we would pass them around our tables. Someone would be in charge of getting the dishes and then we’d pass them around our individual cabin tables. There was something thrilling about that whole ritual. Mac and cheese — which was also a food memory from my mother’s cooking. She made a nice mac and cheese. She always mixed the noodles. There was a period of time when I didn’t like those mixed, like penne and rigatoni. There was a period when I was more pure. But it was really delicious because she made it with real cheese. We never had American cheese in the house. And then that crusty topping. And then when we had it left over the next day she put tuna and broccoli in it and then baked it again. Which I also really liked.

And then in summer camp too we would go out on week-long trips. We had a totally different style of eating when we were on the trail. We had gorp and a lot of peanut butter and jelly. I was raised on really healthy peanut butter and jam. I love that kind of healthy peanut butter now, but I didn’t like it so much when I was little. At camp we would have the creamy, non-healthy Jiff or Skippy or whatever and that was kind of a thrill to eat giant spoonfuls of it. And also – when I was going through those years of not liking my body – to feel on the trail that I didn’t have any of that. It was so hard, I worked so hard that I felt good about eating anything. That’s a nice feeling.

I can remember, viscerally, the experience of cooking, of eating [on the trail]. Once when I was 15 at camp we were out on the trail for two and a half weeks without a shower, hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, swimming. So I remember being very proud of the meals. Maybe we got supplies after a week, met someone and they’d give us more supplies. But basically we were carrying everything we were going to cook with so we were being very strategic about what we brought. It was fun to be creative with reconstituted dried things and cooking them over fire and then eating them on our little tin plates.

I can remember that salty, spicy, greasy flavor

I think they did serve meat [at camp], but I didn’t have any meat until I was 21. Well . . . that’s not entirely true because at school meals they would serve that really spongy pizza, with pepperoni, and I sometimes had a big thing about picking off all the pepperoni but illicitly leave a little piece and taste it. I can remember that salty, spicy, greasy flavor and being thrilled by it but also kind of repulsed by it and hating myself that I’d done it. And then the same thing with tacos. They would serve tacos and they’d have that crunchy, greasy, salty meat. I guess they didn’t have vegetarian options. And so I would make a big thing about scraping all the meat out but leave a little bit and also taste it. I was 10, or 11.

I didn’t tell my mother, and I carried guilt about it, about the little tastes in the lunchroom. I didn’t really have a desire to eat more than that – it was just those little forays. It’s not like I was craving it. She did a good job of introducing a wide variety of foods into my diet and we had plenty of treats. Like we made lasagna together. That was one of the first things that I remember helping cook. I loved lasagna so much. Cheese for me was like . . . my meat. And she made a nice breaded tofu dish that was dipped in egg and cornmeal and then fried that I really liked. And we had a lot of beans. We made chili and we had refried beans. So we had plenty of protein.

But I didn’t really have meat until I was 21. I grew up with eating fish and seafood. But when I was 20, maybe, I started having chicken, a little bit at college. And then when I was 21 I had my first hamburger. So I ate meat pretty heavily for a couple of years after that. Hamburgers, I can eat them and they taste good, and I did make them for years, but then there was a certain time when I moved to Maine and the meat wasn’t so good there. And I bought ground beef once and the experience of looking at it and cooking it totally turned me off, and I haven’t really made meat since then. And I don’t think I could ever again mold a ball of ground meat in my hands. I haven’t ordered a hamburger since then. Just the other day, E. had one and I ate half of it but I don’t really have hamburgers anymore. Then I was vegan, and then I was vegetarian, and now I do eat meat but I don’t actually eat it very much anymore, or cook it, and I’ve kind of lost a taste for it, except when I’m PMSing and need iron.

There are certain foods that I really don’t ever want to try and the smell of them makes me really nauseous. I think really anything in the corned beef, pastrami, bologna. There’s something really disturbing to me about those things, and the smell of them. But I can’t say I don’t like them because don’t know if I ever tried them. I might have tried a little piece of corned beef and it really turned me off.

Kale didn’t exist as a thing when I was growing up and I love it now. And I bet if it had really existed we would have eaten it, although my mom doesn’t like it that much now. She likes spinach more and other kinds of greens, Swiss chard. But I love kale so I’m pleased that that’s a thing. I don’t love roasted root vegetables that are really sweet. Don’t love fruit in salad. Those are the things that I don’t really like. Plenty of times I’ve had to fake it with the fruit in salad. I don’t love the sweet in what I think should be a savory dish. I don’t love it when you get meat that comes with a fruit sauce either. I will eat most things, or all things, and be fine with them but I really don’t like cooked scallops. I love raw scallops. I only had them for the first time a year ago. They are so good. You can get it on sushi and I had it on sushi but I had it at a raw seafood place on the ocean. And I thought, oh, this is how I like scallops. This way they’re so good.

I love seafood. I remember the first time I had salmon. Because Montpelier got gentrified right before we left and got this fancy — well, it seemed kind of fancy — Italian restaurant called Sarducci’s. Before that we went to this Italian restaurant called Angeleno’s and we would always get this baked vegetable al forno, and it was sort of like cannelloni but it was full of vegetables and it was slathered in cheese and it was probably not really that Italian but very Italian-American and totally delicious. And then we’d get these cream puffs for dessert that were full of ice cream and covered in chocolate and whipped cream and were so, so, so, so good. But then, this restaurant moved in called Sarducci’s and they were right on a river in Montpelier and they had salmon and I remember getting it there which I imagine was my first salmon and loving it, loving it. That was maybe when I was 10.

I was comparing my lunches to my friends’ lunches

I don’t think my friends were vegetarians. What I remember being more of an issue was just that we were healthy. Not an issue, but when I was comparing my lunches to my friends’ lunches, it wasn’t so much that I was comparing the vegetarian option to the meat option as I was looking at why is my bread brown and thicker and their bread is thin and white and how come I have these desserts and they have those desserts? I remember my friend K., I went on a day trip with her family and her mom brought us cheese sandwiches and they were Wonder Bread with cheddar and mustard. And I remember eating them and it was just so different, like the bread was gummy and sweet, and stuck to the cheese, and it was really, really thin. It was delicious but I don’t remember thinking this is so much better than the way we eat, just noticing it was different. And the Archway cookies. They came in this rectangular cardboard box with plastic over it and they had a bunch of different flavors, ones that were chocolate, ones that had sugar sprinkled over them, and square ones with lemon frosting. They had ginger-flavored ones. And K.’s family always bought those and she always had two of them at school lunch. I was fascinated by them and really liked them and so my mom actually started buying them which was nice because they weren’t our pure organic stuff.

We did have soda and chips in the house but they were the healthy versions. I remember the Blue Sky sodas. I think there was a blood orange or mandarin orange flavor, and cherry lime, or raspberry lime. And we had those and I remember really liking them. And there’s a ginger one. They probably had natural sweeteners. And we had Cape Cod potato chips sometimes. We didn’t have Lay’s. My mom loves certain types of junk food more than I do. So we definitely had chips around but they were just the kind you could get in the natural food store. Or like Bearitos tortilla chips as opposed to Tostitos. And then we would watch the Oscars and they were like our Superbowl. I would stay up late and we had this dip that was not all-natural called Dean’s Sour Cream and Onion dip, and we’d get Fritos. That was our non-all-natural night. And potato chips and ice cream and sometimes maybe tuna, we’d make tuna, and that would be our dinner. And I would sleep on the couch, like watch it until midnight and fall asleep on the couch and that was a total thrill. It was the junk food night that we had. This was like once a year. These are the treat things.

Now I’m so grateful that that’s how she raised me, because she instilled a taste for these things. And I don’t remember being resentful but I do remember envying certain desserts and things that made their way into my friends’ lunch boxes. But I think in general it was very good that that’s how I grew up, learning how to eat foods that are less processed. We had a little co-op and we worked in it. It was like a couple of hours a month and I remember bagging dried fruit and nuts, bagging blocks of cheese with my mom. The other grocery stores were maybe like The Grand Union, so I think the co-op was where we got that kind of food.

I’m sure that there’s a privileged aspect to how we ate. We were middle-class. And my mom was educated and came from an educated household. And we lived in Vermont for a lot of my upbringing where there are farms, and there are gardens. I think more people probably ate more closer to the land than in a big city. And there was a farmer’s market in Montpelier, too that I just remembered. There was this woman who made biscuits, these incredible biscuits, and made lemon curd. Oh, my god. We bought those and ate them and they were so good. And we used to buy this bread that was woven with a sweet cream cheese. It was all knotted, twisted like a challah, but with cream cheese in it and it was so good. And, my grandfather used to send us pound cake, lemon pound cake that had this orange icing that melted into it. My god, I just remembered those! Oh, and we used to get this chocolate chip bread occasionally and toast it and have it with butter. I forgot all of those things, those incredible treats and they were so good.

I would spend them all at Whole Foods

It was maybe a school project, at a certain age – I was pretty young – where we had to do our own grocery shopping, plan what we were going to buy. I made this shopping list and then went with my mother to the co-op, did my shopping with her supervising. And that was a total thrill. I remember it as being thrilling. Then in college I did a project where we had to go to a grocery store and have an experience and write about was it or wasn’t it an aesthetic experience. It was for an aesthetics class in the Philosophy Department. Maybe because of those two assignments, I have always really loved grocery shopping. I do find it to be an aesthetic experience, even at my poorest. Like I was on SNAP, on food stamps, when I was a freelance director for four years before I got the [college teaching] job. I would spend them all at Whole Foods. And then in New York, when I was living in New York and didn’t have that much money, I would still go to Whole Foods or go to the other kinds of fancy grocery stores and spend 12 bucks on Himalayan salt dried on the rocks under moonlight and gathered by nuns, or whatever. It’s not only the experience of eating, but the experience of shopping and choosing things, that is deeply pleasurable to me. And I have been really poor – like I was making fifteen thousand dollars a year. I can’t imagine giving that up. That to me is a huge source of pleasure in life. And cooking too, and curating meals. That’s always been where I put my money when I don’t have very much money.

They gave me the recipe and I made it on my own

I remember making lasagna with my mom. I remember the nachos when I was in high school. But I don’t remember doing a lot of cooking. I don’t think that was something. I think I helped. I definitely helped. Like my mom would make sometimes — or I would help her make sometimes — oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. Or, she would make blueberry muffins sometimes and they would be just coming out of the oven when I woke up and that was a thrill as well. I don’t remember doing a lot of cooking. I think being enlisted to help in projects, but . . . I remember when I was 20, in the summer, I lived in an apartment with my girlfriend at the time and that summer I really discovered a lot . . . Oh, actually, no! It was a year before that, in college, so I was 19. These two people who were older than me had me over to their apartment on campus and they made me this salad with hummus and chicken on the bottom of the plate and then the salad piled high. It was this Middle Eastern kind of salad. I was so enamored of their life together and how they cooked. And they had this recipe and they gave me the recipe and I made it on my own. That was a big first for me.

Making my own food, following a recipe that was different than anything I had ever had, and then that set me off that summer when I was living with my girlfriend at that time in New York. I wanted to cook for us, impress her. That set me off on this journey. I was just experimenting because I didn’t have a lot of recipes. I remember one night making tomato sauce with golden tomatoes, and breading eggplant and frying it and putting mozzarella cheese on it, and with the golden tomato sauce. I made that salad again. And some fish. So I was just experimenting. That summer after my sophomore year of college, when I was 20, I remember starting to cook. Starting to cook the one or two meals that I could do, starting to experiment. Like scallops, and then with grapes and candied walnuts or something. I don’t know, I was experimenting and being like, “I like these foods.” Or seeing food in the grocery store and this thing started – which I still do today – which is I love looking at menus and reading the different combinations on menus. And so even just walking through a new town, I’ll stop and read the menus that are posted outside of restaurants. So I will be in a grocery store and see something and be like, “I bet that goes really well with that.” And then realizing that I read this combo on a menu somewhere. I’ve never even had it. That was the beginning of my cooking, just remembering seeing or hearing about combinations somewhere, and manifesting them and experimenting.

And we also had these family friends who were incredible cooks, one of them in particular. We had Thanksgiving at their apartment every year since I was very, very young. For years I didn’t eat the turkey and then one year I started eating the turkey. And all the side dishes were incredible. And this woman who cooked a lot, she just made incredible side dishes and experimented a lot with Indian food. Actually, she didn’t really experiment. She has hundreds of cookbooks. She would take a meticulous scientific approach to things and just make extraordinary food. I know I was very inspired by her. I first had shishito peppers with her and she served it with a block of feta cheese drizzled in honey and cracked black pepper. So that’s something I do. I got a lot of combination ideas from her.

It feels like art

I think [my experimenting with food] is in keeping with the kind of theater director that I am too. I think I have some feelings of limitation around the fact that I don’t write plays, I adapt them. But it is important to me to leave my own mark on the material. For probably ego reasons as well as political reasons and aesthetic reasons. I feel that with food too. I do like to read five recipes online. It’s so easy, if I’m making something for the first time, to read multiple recipes and see what’s consistent through all of them, and thus probably important. But I don’t like to follow to a T. I like to be there and tasting and smelling and working from a kinesthetic place which is how I direct too. That is to me part of the creativity and what’s relaxing about it too. It feels like art.

And cooking is totally that for me. It’s relaxing, it’s pleasurable, it’s aesthetic. Cooking and eating. And I really love to eat with my hands. And I love other people who eat with their hands. I don’t have the sense of it being bad table manners. Even though I know it is. I know my mother doesn’t like it. I would eat anything with my hands. There’s something much more pleasurable, and tactile and connected to me.

One thought on “Poppy, age 35

  1. What a contrast to your previous interviewees! such distinct generational, as well as regional, differences: language, choices, perspective, politics. I love the faking it with fruit in salad 🙂


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