Elissa Schappell: “The Joy of Cooking” from One Story

“I have an announcement to make.” Emily cleared her throat dramatically. “Today, I became a woman,” she said. “I bought a chicken. I did. With legs and everything.”

This line becomes more and more ironic as the story continues. But let’s back up a little. I very much enjoyed reading this story. It’s a little close to movie-of-the-week material, to being “an anorexia story.” I don’t think it goes there – it’s a mother story – because of the wonderful artistry of the telling of the tale.

It’s part of a brand-new collection of linked stories, Blueprints for Building Better Girls. In her Q&A at One Story, Schappell says she had to tell the story: “You can’t write a book that deals intimately and truthfully with the experiences that shape American women’s lives without writing about our tortured relationship to food.” She chose the mother’s POV because: “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.” I don’t think this is the case at all – but I would guess I’ve seen more Movies-of-the-Week than she has (which, in case you’re wondering, is not a good thing). I think she was extremely successful in capturing Mom’s measured response, in the face of incipient panic, to Emily’s immaturity, attention-seeking, and neediness. But you know, sometimes, nobody’s a monster, everyone’s just doing the best they can within all their limitations.

The story opens with Mom getting ready to go to yoga before going to the department store to buy a new shade of lipstick – “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.” Then she is going to meet co-worker Hugo for coffee. “…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.”

But daughter Emily calls to announce her womanhood via poultry purchase. Mom (who has no other name in the story) is surprised, as Emily doesn’t cook and doesn’t really eat. “At 24, Emily has been anorexic for almost half her life.” At this point I’m not sure if that description is casual – in the joking way people who know nothing about anorexia describe someone who eats carefully – or for real. The behavior described – eating salads, ordering restaurant food steamed with no sauce and not eating a lot of it – isn’t that far off what a lot of extremely figure-conscious women do. It also isn’t that far off what a lot of anorexics do.

But Mom’s serious when she says Emily is anorexic. And now Emily is in love, and wanting to cook is a symptom. She met him at the Social Security office. This is serious anorexia, to qualify for SSDI. The man, who gets no name, is an actor and mimes picking roses and handing her a bouquet while she waits her turn in the waiting room. He is funny and brilliant. His reason for being in the Social Security office – he’s driven his grandmother there, he’s got his own SSDI qualification – is not disclosed. It’s something that worries me, but Mom doesn’t seem to think about it. I’m guessing she’s learned the hard way not to pry.

Emily has a bad moment when she touches the chicken – “Eek, Mommy, it’s slimy. Its legs won’t stay closed – I’m putting on rubber gloves – bad chicken, slutty chicken.” This isn’t comedy. I don’t know how, but it’s conveyed with total seriousness. The “mommy,” the rubber gloves, and the “slutty chicken,” this is anorexia, all right (though I admit, I hate handling raw chicken. I do it, but I hate it). Mom gives her instructions. Mom’s call-waiting beeps – it’s Paige, the younger daughter in pre-med who never needs anything – and Mom doesn’t switch over. This, too, is anorexia. No, I’m not anorexic, but I’ve known quite a few. Getting all the attention is what it’s all about. Call waiting beeps a second time later in this story, and is ignored a second time; then Paige is forgotten. The daughter who made it into pre-med gets telephonically lost. At the end of the story, I still wondered what Paige was calling about – because somebody has to. I wonder if this thing about Paige not needing anything is Mom’s wish, her invention, because she had nothing left to give her.

There’s another little moment – this story is full of them – when Emily mentions how everyone thinks they look great together, she and her new beau. Mom goes to: how many people have you introduced him to, before you’ve introduced him to me? Because introducing him is still not in the picture here. She’s there for cooking instruction only. Mom doesn’t say anything. This is so loving-motherish, it breaks my heart.

There’s a wonderful sequence in which Mom counts back the years by Emily’s birthdays – at 15, she refused a party, ate angel cake crumb by crumb and started complaining about clothes not fitting, not coming in size double-zero. At 14, she wanted butterfly cakes and had an elaborate party and careened between elation and despair. Back to her first birthday, Mom’s marriage and Emily’s illness are traced. It’s always interesting to see things this way, to see how things progressed backwards. Great technique, effectively used.

The cooking continues, along with other revelations. Finally, we discover the kicker: it isn’t a chicken at all, it’s a Cornish game hen. Emily is that distorted. Now, half a Cornish hen is a meal, in fact. But you cut it in half and serve it that way, you don’t roast it and carve it at the table. It’s not a chicken. Unless you’re anorexic.