Saturday, December 3, 2022

Zosia Mamet on pushing for a trigger warning for stories about food and feelings

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“Food and feelings.”

That’s what Zosia Mamet invited a collection of famous friends — and notable strangers — to talk about for the new anthology “My First Popsicle.” Featuring essays and recipes from an array of talent including Patti Smith, Kaley Cuoco, Ruth Reichl, Katie Holmes, Ted Danson, and of course, Mamet herself, the book is an intimate, evocative exploration of one of the most intense relationships in our lives.

The “Girls” and “Flight Attendant” actor joined me on “Salon Talks” about SpaghettiOs, sorbet and feeling starstruck meeting Martha Stewart. Watch our episode here or read our conversation below. 

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

It’s called “My First Popsicle,” but this book goes in directions that I did not expect it to go. Food is not always a light, easy breezy journey, right?

Definitely not. I had hoped that we would capture that in the through line of this book, but I gave the contributors the loosest leash that I possibly could. I said, “Food and feelings, write about whatever you want to.” I had an inkling and a hope that they would come back with these exceptionally nuanced and varied essays, and they did. 

We have a spectrum, from Tony Hale writing about his love of chain restaurants to Rosie Perez talking about her very intense childhood trauma. It shows that we all have these connections and these emotional relationships and memories with food. Some of them are really good, some of them are really traumatic, some of them are triggering and some of them are joyful. That’s what I wanted to get across with this book.

The “first popsicle” in the title is not your first popsicle; it’s somebody else’s. It is an emotional journey for that particular person. 

I wanted to show the spectrum of these emotional connections that we all have to food; that it’s good and bad and everything in between.

It was our friend’s toddler. My husband and I were having dinner with some friends and they were late. They showed up, and they explained that they had given their son a popsicle for the first time, and they had to stay to watch his reaction because they didn’t really expect it to be so extreme. They were thinking, “Oh, he is going to love it,” which he inevitably did. But before he gets to that conclusion, he experiences a myriad of emotions. They had gotten it on film, so they showed us this two-minute video of their son having a popsicle for the first time. 

It struck me, because he is sort of confused at first and then he seems to not like it because it’s very cold. Then he gets very into it, perhaps too into it, and he gets a brain freeze and then he starts to cry. Then he’s like, “I want more.” That was the first seed that planted in my brain about this idea of our emotional connection to food.

This book has an all-star lineup of people not just from the world of acting, but from writing, from the food world, from music. There are people like [Mamet’s “The Flight Attendant” co-star] Kaley Cuoco, who it makes sense is in this. But I heard that you actually cold-contacted some people that you wanted for it. How did you decide who to include in the book? 

There were a couple of people who I didn’t know personally or I didn’t necessarily have an easy access connection to, but I was just such an admirer of their work in whatever field they were in. I just really hoped that they would consider contributing. Everybody that I called and emailed said yes, which was so crazy and amazing. 

You’ve done this with other projects in your life too. How do you do that? It can be scary to ask strangers to do something.

I think you just do it. Something that I have to remind myself of a lot, but I think is the most important, is: What’s the worst thing that can happen? The worst thing that can happen is someone says no. Where my horrible imagination goes beyond that is, that someone could be offended or someone would never want to speak to you again. But, especially if you’re cold-emailing someone, you already don’t know them. If they get offended then you probably don’t want to work with that person anyway, because what a bizarre reaction. Whenever I’m afraid to do something like that, I just ask with gratitude and an open heart. Normally when I’m asking someone to do something, it’s because they’re someone that I admire. 

I complimented a woman the other day. I was leaving a yoga class and I was like, “Your leggings are so cool.” She was like, “Thank you so much. My husband always says, ‘What woman doesn’t like a compliment?'” I think that it’s like that for every human being, but sometimes we get so afraid and we turn in on ourselves and start to think, “How is this person going to react to my ask?” Most people are in their own worlds and they’re not necessarily thinking about you. As self-centered individuals, as human beings, we often forget that. I feel like no human doesn’t like being complimented and being asked to take part in something because someone admires them. So I think you just do it, and remind yourself the worst that can happen is they say no.

In your introduction, you talk about your own experiences, the fact that this book is going to take on some heavy things, and that there are going to be discussions about eating disorders and mental health. How did you set the tone in this book so that there was space in it for these harder conversations, knowing they can be difficult for people to read about? 

I wanted this book to be a home for any kind of story that the contributor wanted to tell. I wanted to show the spectrum of these emotional connections that we all have to food; that it’s good and bad and everything in-between. That’s why I didn’t lead anybody in terms of a subject matter. I just wanted them to have free rein to write about whatever called to them. 

I knew that people were going to write funny stories and silly stories, and I had hoped that people would go to these darker, deeper places, and they absolutely did. I wanted to create the space. I went a bit back and forth with my editors about whether or not we should have, essentially, a trigger warning at the beginning of the book. We inevitably decided that we wanted to have that. It was actually one of the hardest parts of the book to write, because I wanted to set it up in a way that didn’t deter anybody from reading these essays. I just wanted to make them aware that they were there so no one was caught off guard if a subject matter was going to be triggering for them. 

Rosie Perez’s piece deals with some very heavy topics. The other night, she was on a panel with me. She was talking about writing it and she was like, “Writing that story wasn’t necessarily cathartic, and talking about it isn’t necessarily cathartic, but I know that I have to in order to heal.” I think writing and reading about things that may be triggering for individuals is kind of necessary. As someone who has survived something quite traumatic in my younger years, if you put something in a drawer deep down inside, it’s never going to get better. I definitely thought it was important to make space for people to tell those kinds of stories in this book.

Perez also generously includes a lengthy, complicated, beautiful recipe at the end of it. You also have Jell-O cake, SpaghettiOs, sophisticated restaurant food. Have you made any of the dishes from the book? 

I haven’t. I haven’t had time to make any of the dishes yet, but I’m pretty excited. Actually, I had a bucket list moment earlier today. I was at the “Today” show and Martha Stewart was on right before me. We were in the green room together. Martha Stewart was holding my book, and I was like, “Cool, I can die now.” She asked me the same question, and I was like, “I haven’t made any of them,” and she kind of gave me a discerning look. I was like, “Don’t worry, I will.” 

I know that you do like to entertain. When people come over, what do you like to serve them? You talk a lot about how your love language is gifts, and I assume that also means giving people food. What do you like to feed people?

Anything and everything. I live in fear of there not being enough food, so I’m always the person who’s making way too much. I’m a big believer in snacks, so I’m a big believer that you never want to eat on an empty stomach. People come over, and there’s a cheese plate with nuts and apples and 17 different types of crackers. I always want to have options for everyone. Normally that’s what’s out first. My husband likes to call me a rustic cook, which I think is a very kind euphemism for just not actually that good. 

It’s about the presentation. That’s what I think of when I think of the word rustic.

I’m not very good about presentation either though. It’s all going to the same place. I like a simple meal. We had some friends over the other night and I made an epic taco spread. That’s a pretty classic meal that I’ll serve people. I like something simple and hearty that I feel like no one has to feel like polite eating. You could eat with your hands. Who doesn’t love that?

When I read the book, I set a challenge for myself. I thought, “When was the last time I had a “My First Popsicle” experience?” When is the last time in your life that something took you on a journey when you approached it for the first time? 

I honestly haven’t had one. One of the things that made me think about food and emotions on a deeper level was thinking about how rare it is that we have a “My First Popsicle” moment past the age of 12. Unless you’re eating something truly exotic, I feel like we as adults don’t really have firsts with food that often in a way that hits that deep as your first popsicle would. That’s what got me thinking about this on a deeper level. What are those other emotional connections that we have to food, beyond just a first time experience? 

When was the last time you ate something that blew your mind?

Most recently, I had a papaya sorbet that was pretty insane. I’m a pretty rough judge because I’ve been allergic to dairy since I was seven. What do kids have at birthday parties from the age of seven to 13? Pizza with an ice cream cake. I was always the kid where they were like, “Well, there are celery sticks.” And I’m like, “I don’t want a celery stick.” Once sorbet started to be a thing, I always felt like it was just a sorry excuse for ice cream. “You can’t have ice cream, but here’s a sorbet.” I was like, “That’s flavored ice.”

So any time I’m at a restaurant and I ask, “Do you have any desserts that don’t have dairy?” and the say, “We have sorbet,” I’m like, “No thank you.” But they offered up sorbet at this restaurant and they said, “It’s pretty amazing. I already had my judgment hat on, and I’m a chocolate girl, but he brought this papaya sorbet out and it was incredible.

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Tell me what you’re working on now. You’re working on another movie, right?

I shot two movies this summer and into September.

And then I hear you have another book coming out.

I’m working on a book of personal essays that will be coming out next after this one. 

“I had an inkling and a hope that they would come back with these exceptionally nuanced and varied essays, and they did.”

Is there a theme?

I’m sort of the through line, that they happen to be all coming out of my brain. It’s a book of nonfiction essays.

You end the book with Christmas, talking about how much you love the season and your bittersweet memories tied to food. Now that we’re getting into the season, what are you excited to eat or make, Zosia?

I love Christmas so much. I’m a huge baker. I’ve always loved to bake. I didn’t learn to cook until later in life, but baking has been a joy of mine since I was little. One of the things I love so much about Christmas are the smells of the season. Literally, anything I can possibly think of that smells like a holiday season, I will start baking probably once this press tour is over. Pumpkin bread, pies, anything with a gingery smell to it. My husband’s training for a movie right now, so he’s going to be very mad at me because I am going to be filling the house with baked goods. But yeah, anything and everything baking-wise that smells like Christmas.

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