Joy of Cooking
by Elissa Schappell
Issue #152 • July 11, 2011•Buy Now!
I was halfway out the door when the phone rang. Another person would have let the machine pick up, but you know how it is when you’re a mother.
“Thank God you’re there,” my daughter Emily said, sounding out of breath.
“I am, but sweetie,” I said. “I’m in a bit of a rush...”
“No, no, wait! Don’t go,” she cried. “Please, Mommy? I’m begging you. I just need one thing, I promise.”
I looked at the clock: 4:00. Yoga started at 4:30. After yoga, provided I wasn’t bleeding or paralyzed, I was planning to pop into the drug store and buy new lipstick. Something youthful but sophisticated, with shimmer. My mother always said that a woman should have a signature lipstick the way a man had a signature cocktail. I’d married and divorced Emily’s father, Terry, in Cherries in the Snow. After the new lipstick, I was going to treat myself to an overdue haircut. Something new, possibly even a little racy. I’d been toying with the idea of bangs. Then, at 6:30, I was meeting Hugo, the new man shelving the philosophy section at the bookstore where for the last fifteen years I’d been working as a cashier and bookkeeper. I had shaved my legs. It was just coffee, but let’s just say it had been a long time between cups of coffee. 1,825 days to be exact. Five years. Not that I was counting.
Elissa Schappell is the author of two books of fiction, Use Me and Blueprints for Building Better Girls, which includes “The Joy of Cooking” and will be published by Simon & Schuster in September 2011. She is also co-editor with Jenny Offill of the anthologies The Friend Who Got Away and Money Changes Everything. She’s a former Senior Editor at The Paris Review and Founding Editor, now Editor-at-Large of Tin House, and a Contributing Editor at Vanity Fair. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review, Bomb, Vogue, SPIN, The KGB Bar Reader, The Mrs. Dalloway Reader, Cooking and Stealing, and other magazines and anthologies. She lives in Brooklyn.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
I had to write it from the mother’s perspective because my sickness is needing to tell the truth, to say the thing you shouldn’t say. Take the experience we are familiar with—in this case the relationship between a young woman with an eating disorder and her mother—and show you a very different reality. Just as truthful.
I wanted to know, What’s the mother’s side of the story? In the typical narrative, the daughter is a victim, her mother a controlling monster. The thing you don’t know, can’t say, is sometimes it’s the daughter who is the monster.
The impact of the relationship between Emily and the mother is in evidence in the story told from the point of view of the younger sister, who has become a mother. The different ways these women see and judge each other—how they jibe or are in opposition to what we know about them—was compelling to me.
I do think she’ll find some peace, now that Emily is separating from her. Sometimes the relationship between parent and child transcends what we might think of as the typical bond. It’s more like a love story. The great love of your life might not be the person you fall in love with, marry, and perhaps grow old with. That person could be a parent.
For the first draft I also had a clear structure, using the actual recipe to break the sections down, which helped me enormously in the early drafts. Ultimately, I abandoned it because it felt artificial. That and I wanted the reader not to focus on the how the chicken was being made, but on what a profound experience it was for this mother to teach her daughter this, and what a huge step forward it was for this daughter—not only is she making food, she’s making it for a man, she’s never had this sort of relationship. So, it’s really a happy story.
No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.
Oh, and take breaks to stretch your arms and hands. It’s hard as sin to type with a pencil.