“[Food is] central to every woman’s existence, even if we don’t want to say that it is. We live in a world where we are expected to look a certain way and where the role models of perfection are astoundingly hard to achieve. In our own way, we all struggle to be what the world expects a woman to be.” —Cathy Guisewite, Weight Watchers Magazine, 1992
If you don’t know who or what the Cathy comics are, congratulations on being extremely hot and young. Allow me to introduce her and, with regrets, myself.
I am a huge fan of Cathy—the comics, the titular character, and creator Cathy Guisewite, who was convinced to name her daily comic strip about a single professional woman’s day-to-day struggles after herself in 1976 and has carried the psychic weight of that decision ever since. The comic ran until 2010, quietly paving the way for other iconic single professional women in pop culture while remaining a popular punching bag by those same characters for no discernible reason.
For the better part of this year, I made it my job to understand the Cathy character, the very particular kind of boomer woman she represented, and what spiritual distress lay behind her the guttural roar of “aack!” Aack Cast, a podcast that at least my mother and my high school crush have listened to, was the result.
My takeaways included: Cathy fucks. Cathy is an underrated and often deeply funny look at the aggressive societal norms placed on middle-class boomer women’s bodies and lives, and how they were encouraged to deal with that by, well, buying shit. Cathy often deals with the frustrations and failures of her life—the dead-end job that she isn’t paid equally for, the dead-end love life she can’t seem to crack—with food, either in excess or in absence. And okay, same.
Enter Girl Food: Cathy’s Cookbook for the Well-Balanced Woman, a 1997 cookbook so aggressively binary in its concept that I was compelled to buy a used copy from one of those websites that sells you books from libraries closing under mysterious circumstances. Made in collaboration with Cathy Guisewite (who provided original comics and recipe titles) and professional chef Barbara Albright (who wants you to add an entire can of tomatoes to any dish), the cookbook attempts to distill our boomer heroine’s lifetime of food issues into a collection of recipes for, if the title is to be believed, Girl.
I check the mirror. I am girl. This book must be for me. I tell the gigantic-pored mirror person that I’m going to make the Girl Food, from all of the Girl Food categories:
- Romance Food
- Swimsuit Food
- Sweat Suit Food
- Grown-Up Food
- Consolation Food
(These are the foods canonically available to Girl.)
Something to know about me is that I don’t cook. I’m not talking about coy shrug, tee hee, “I don’t really cook,” then can make you an omelet that looks like the pictures on the Denny’s menu after giving you the sex of your life the night before. These “I don’t cook” types make me sick. Those liars who claim to “not cook” and don’t need to google “how do I egg” every time they even consider making themselves breakfast should have to pay a fine to the rest of us.
When I tell you I do not cook, I am telling you with shame in my rotting chest artery that I do not cook. I had a boyfriend who cooked. I have legs that walk to 7-Eleven to get Easy Mac and pizza rolls and, when I’m feeling made of money, grocery store sushi. In my years of working at cafes and bagel shops I was tasked not with making the food but working the register, where I could pursue my true passion: getting sexually harassed by men in Red Sox jerseys. I have never added a second ingredient to pasta, I will dip basically anything in blue cheese dressing, I do not cook.
All my excuses have aged about as well as the year-old carton of oat milk (healthy!) in the back of my fridge. I have never lived alone until the last—and I’m not keeping track here—504 hours. At this late stage in my life, an age at which I could only play a high schooler on Riverdale for maybe six more minutes, it is no longer adorable to say “I don’t cook” and have it be the complete truth.
This is the part of the comic where Cathy would say “aack.”
“Nothing compels me toward ‘sensible eating’ like getting a good look at my winter body in a summer mirror.” —Cathy Guisewite
The first recipe I chose lives within a Girl Food category designed for career anorexics like myself, and the recipe that boasts what I hope we agree is a perfect title. Did you happen to buy an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny bikini recently? Come over, I’ve got some low-fat pasta with an entire can of clams in it for you.
Before my first night of cooking, I wander the aisles of the grocery store and realize that outside of the five things I’ve been eating for my entire adult life, I have no idea where anything is. This was always the jurisdiction of my partner, who added bread crumbs to things I assumed grew with bread crumbs attached to them. I could find the prepared salads in a fugue state, but the itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny bikini linguine recipe requires olive oil and I don’t know if that’s a condiment or a kitchen supply.
My friend Bryant comes over with the most important ingredient, one-third of a cup of white wine. This leaves five and two thirds cups of white wine to polish off before we start cooking, and by the time I’m boiling pasta water he is loudly recalling a theme restaurant we went to eight years ago as I openly cry while chopping a garlic clove. (Chopping garlic doesn’t make you cry. I was just crying.)
For someone whose brand relied heavily on her relationship with food for better and for worse, the Cathy character is rarely depicted actually cooking in the world of the comic strip. This is a part of the aack lifestyle: She doesn’t really have time to cook, but needs the world to think that she does in order to better align with the “woman who has it all” image she did daily combat with. We hear more about what she buys than what she actually uses.
“A whole can of clams?” Bryant asks. Yes, honey. A whole can of clams, undrained. This is why the entire menagerie of Swimsuit Food is either a shade of grayish-beige or “A Really Big Salad.”
Inexperienced as I am, I cannot blame the “Why Did I Buy An Itsy-Bitsy, Teeny-Weeny Bikini Linguine” recipe for why I felt sick to my stomach for the next twenty-four hours—that could just as easily have been the entire bottle of wine. What I will say is that the Swimsuit Food recipe followed through in shedding two pounds because I couldn’t keep food down until the next evening.
Bryant’s opinion on the Itsy-Bitsy, Teeny-Weeny Bikini Linguine will be omitted from the piece. He couldn’t even taste it. This is food for Girl, after all.
“Men take a taste and leave the rest. Women take a taste and eat the whole pie. Men date. Women turn it into a relationship. It’s as simple as that.” —Cathy Guisewite
If there’s one thing a boomer woman can do without fail, it is make any object, place, or experience a long-winded metaphor on The Pains of Being Hetero. But listen, Cathy’s caught me at a good time.
I have incredible news for people who have never cooked anything in their lives but have played hundreds of hours of baking shows as they fall asleep: You have learned how to make a cookie by osmosis. You are the somnambulant baker. Once my itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny bikini linguine successfully cleared from my body, a can of clams on the way in and out, I started in on the cookie dough I deeply considered not cooking at all.
Not to brag, but I made the damn cookies and people ate them, voluntarily, on purpose. I was worried that no one would want cookies with nuts in them, but it turns out that nuts only bother people with nut allergies, fourth graders, and me, who thinks that nuts make a cookie seem arrogant.
This recipe has it all. You get to break an egg and say “nice!” when the shell doesn’t get in the batter. You need to own two whole bowls to do it, and you need to be able to space the cookies two inches apart on a baking sheet. If you meet these requirements, you too can text every friend who lives within a mile radius and insist that they eat the slightly too bready cookie you made for literally anyone.
“When I’m miserable, I don’t want empathetic dialogue. I want food.” —Cathy Guisewite
Okay. Right at the top, I fucked this one up pretty badly.
Full disclosure: I forgot to buy chicken for the chicken noodle soup. Fuller disclosure: I should have just gone back and bought the chicken, but I don’t have a driver’s license and my feet were tired. Disclosure that borders on irrelevance: I really thought that I could rectify the issue by simply doubling the amount of noodles in the soup. This was incorrect.
This recipe calls for two cups of chicken and one cup of noodles, added to a mix of fresh vegetables in chicken broth. Chickenless but still riding the high of people having eaten cookies I made without being under duress, I got confident. I was Selena and I was chef. I was arriving at the level of clear-headed certainty that Cathy did when she started a whisper network among her female coworkers in the 1980s after her boss forcibly kissed her. I said, okay, I’m going to add two cups of noodles and no chicken.
The other ingredients, I will say, did not help. The onions were fine, the garlic added something, but Barbara Albright has a compulsive need to demand her reader add an entire can of tomatoes to things that borders on the abusive. A can of oysters? Okay, Barbara, I’m not a millionaire, I can’t tell you you’re wrong. An entire can of tomatoes in soup? This is not right. This is why she’s cowriting I’m in the Mood for Food: Cooking With Garfield and Cooking with Regis and Kathie Lee instead of, I don’t know, whatever else it is a chef would be doing. My point is, Barbara Albright should not have told the girls who are making the girl food in Girl Food to put a whole can of girl tomatoes in the girl soup.
Let’s take a moment to interrogate the logic that is “double it.” The confidence required for “double it” is not one I possess, one that assumes that twice as much of something will be twice as good. Those who double it successfully double their efforts, their assertiveness, their cosmetic procedures. This method is not for everyone—I doubled it, and what I got was wet, meatless pasta from a chicken noodle soup recipe.
“I made Girl soup!” I text Bryant. He does not have the heart to tell me I did not make Girl soup and arguably did not make soup at all.
I’m going to make the safe guess that you don’t know how Cathy’s whisper network pans out in the comic. That’s one of the things I really love about Cathy: every strip contains a tight, four-panel gag, but those gags add up to storylines that can carry on for weeks. Cathy’s whisper network fails; not only does her boss stay in his position, he continues to hit on employees for the next thirty years of the comic. He spends weeks panicking about how the Anita Hill case is infringing on his ability to express himself. He tells women how to dress and denies Cathy raise after raise. Cathy failed, and so have I.
I look at my Girl face in my Girl mirror.
“That’s not soup, Jamie,” I tell her. “That is not fucking soup.”
Grown-up Food: What Was I Thinking When I Said, “Stop By Anytime,” Major Grey’s Marvelous Mango Chutney Cheese Spread
“Like many dynamic, successful women of my generation, I always fantasized that, one day, I would entertain groups of witty, intelligent friends in my home.” —Cathy Guisewite
After the Girl Soup fiasco, I take a day for my mental health. During this day, I force myself to eat Girl wet pasta for every meal as a new and interesting punishment.
Two days later, I flip to the Grown-Up Food section in the hopes of keeping it simple. What greets me is a recipe for a large bowl of cheese dip for a party I’m not having for friends I am not texting back. With bacon and chutney! This I can do.
Like many boomers, the Cathy character made a big deal of her “worldly” palate while dating, which ordinarily meant going to a non-American restaurant with a date, then deciding that American food was superior to whatever “other” they had consumed by the end of the night. I’m getting that same energy from this “grown-up” recipe, but get the job done anyways: an entire container of cream cheese, an entire special-ordered can of mango chutney, green onions in place of scallions after a frantic Google confirmation, and four successfully cooked, if rubbery, strips of bacon in one mixing bowl.
Folks, the dip is good. Please disregard that it was supposed to serve ten people.
“What will work? That’s all we really want to know, isn’t it?” —Cathy Guisewite
Saving Romance Food for last was such a Cathy-grade level of self-harm that I wish it were intentional. The reason for saving it was strictly based in noodle trauma—Barbara Albright managed to combine my anxiety of adding an entire can of tomatoes to a recipe with my anxiety of adding an entire can of tinned fish to a recipe in one bowl of puttanesca. Another can of fish will not agree with my ass, and that is the core of romance.
Pasta puttanesca occupies a special corner of my rotting chest artery because it isn’t just Girl Food, it’s a food you prepare when Count Olaf is forcing you to cook a meal for his theater troupe but doesn’t give you any money for ingredients. (The two genders: girl and recently orphaned.)
There are a few substitutions of note here that gave me some anxiety. Albright’s recipe calls for two “anchovy fillets,” which sound made up, but they were sold out at the store because not only do they exist, there are people in my neighborhood willing to pay money to eat them. Given that my neighborhood is overrun with villainous theater troupes, this tracks. Google tells me that sardines will do, so I get the ’dines (trying to make this catch on).
At this point in my cooking journey, I’ve ignored any ingredient that’s just leaves in a jar that costs six dollars, and I absolutely cannot have something boiling on the stove while attempting to chop up something else on the counter. The romance pasta is completed, and while it does not make me horny or in love, it does not make me physically ill, nor is it excessively wet.
Toward the end of the Cathy comics, Cathy settles for the blowhard on-and-off boyfriend Irving who’s been haunting her life for the better part of thirty years. They buy a house in the middle of the housing bubble that will implode the American economy, she remains the employee of a man who has sexually harassed her and everyone around her, and in the final strip she announces she is pregnant. She’s done it—she has it all.
Having it all is like a recipe for chicken noodle soup. You can switch things out and fuck it up, or you can follow the directions and still tip an entire can of tomatoes into a soup that does not require it. The latter sucks; the former sucks but is a little more interesting to talk about at parties. We’re all going to die, but I did cook, technically, and it was good about one and a half times. Aack.
If anyone wants Wet Girl Pasta in the Los Angeles area, please contact me.