(by Mary McTigue)
My mother never encouraged me or any of my six siblings to eat. She wasn’t the type.
My first memory of being at the dinner table was being forced to sit in my place after
everyone had left to “finish my peas.” I was maybe six. Being a member of the Clean
Plate Club didn’t sway me. I never did eat those peas.
Mom had been a registered nurse, and knew it was her job to feed her seven kids. But
to her, it was always a chore. She was highly organized and regimented. We learned
our kitchen jobs at an early age, but not how to help cook—just with everything else.
Mother was not a cook. Most of her recipes were from the Betty Crocker cookbook,
along with her philosophy: “Anyone who can read can cook.” But she never presented
cooking as either fun or creative.
Family dinners comprised all nine of us, even when the new house extension in
Mankato, Minnesota, was under construction and the kitchen table was jammed into a
space much too small for the six-foot oval oak table, not to mention all of us crowded
around it. My fondest memory when I was that young was not the food or the dinners; it
was playing “Animal, Mineral, Vegetable,” with my dad hosting the game.
Mom was trim, slim, and proud, and never gained a pound with any of her pregnancies.
She had plenty of other problems, but weight was not one of them. As we got into
adolescence and our teen years, we were still required to sit at the dinner table. After
the last child started school, Mom went back to college to finish a bachelor’s degree.
She commanded my sister and me, the two oldest girls, “If I am not home at five p.m.,
one of you put dinner on. The menu for the week is posted on the fridge.” So one of us
put the roast or frozen fish or Irish-Italian spaghetti in and cooked it, and the other set
out the silverware, made the salad, put the milk in glasses, and placed plates of bread
and butter on the table. By the time Mommy got home, dinner was ready. And when
Daddy got home, we all sat down at the same time, said grace, and ate. Mother was
the last to finish, frequently complaining that the rest of us should not eat so fast.
I was always a little pudgy, unlike my gorgeous and popular older sister. When I was 15
and a junior in high school, I dyed my drab hair platinum blonde and wore it like
everyone else—long and straight. One day, without warning, Mother drove me down to
her hairdresser, “Woody,” and said to him, “I don’t care what you do, give this girl’s hair a
style.” He chopped off all my hair to above my ears. I was so humiliated and infuriated
that I went on a hunger fast. As though Mother would even notice. Or care.
The only time in my growing up when cooking was presented as “fun” was when my dad
cooked barbecued chicken on a big, covered Hasty Bake grill outside on the patio. He
had a great time mixing up the sauce and was a jolly cook, although we didn’t take part
in whatever he was doing. He was always drinking when cooking, so maybe that was
the fun part for him. I picked up on that little habit.
By the time I got out of college, I was paranoid about my weight but not quite anorexic.
So I always felt “fat” although I wasn’t technically even overweight. It was becoming an
actress that made me feel fat, exacerbated by moving to New York. Surrounded by
skinny women at auditions, with the camera adding ten pounds, I got in the habit of not
eating at all, then drinking instead, and as a result, ending up in blackouts and
potentially (sometimes actually) dangerous situations. That’s when I started “refrigerator
eating.” Instead of cooking anything, I’d buy a sandwich and store it in the fridge. In the
middle of the night when I came to, I’d stuff the sandwich in my mouth because, of
course, I was starving.
After I got sober, I got married and had a son. After the bottle phase and baby food, I
don’t remember what he ate. He started school at age four, but never had breakfast
because he refused to get up on time. After school, I took him to McDonald’s and
Burger King or made him a sandwich that he didn’t eat. I rarely cooked. I still don’t cook.
Now my son likes to cook, but I am still pretty much a “refrigerator eater.” I don’t drink
anymore, but I do eat. I can scramble eggs.