The Clean Plate Club

(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.

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Mary McTigue is an actress and author of the book Acting Like a Pro. She can be found at www.marymctigue.com.