Listen to Maria Bamford, and you will hear her many voices talk about food. This is a woman who has carefully considered food from angles you probably haven't yet, with topics ranging from her "squeezy cheese/can of wine" cooking technique to why Paula Deen recipes read like buttery suicide notes to the worst possible way to place an order ("I'd like a bowl of boiling hot water -- with ice, but I don't want the ice to get all tiny").
You may recognize her as the appropriately named DeBrie from the fourth season of "Arrested Development," but it's Maria's awesome stand-up that earned her an invitation to Midnight Snack. Well, that and the fact her parents pledged money to KCET back the in the day. I kid. I didn't know until she told me that though she grew up in Duluth, Maria was born in Port Hueneme, and when she was wee, her parents scored a free bean bag chair for their pledge.
I met Maria at Camilo's California Bistro in Eagle Rock, where dinner conversation covered but was not limited to the Midwest, 7-11's "Hot Eats / Cool Treats" line, "Adventure Time" and six-dollar donuts. Upon glancing over the menu, Maria had already declared a winner.
Maria: My favorite is always a Caesar salad. Now prices here are always very reasonable: $6.95. That suggests a kindness in their pricing. But how big is that Caesar?
Drew: We'll ask.
Maria: That's the thing about people in restaurants. Growing up in the Midwest, you didn't ask. There were never any questions. It was just "Whatever comes, that will be pretty good, right?" I did not grow up in a "foodie" culture. It was more "you're going to get what you're going to get and that will be... all right. You're out. Isn't that something?" But now in my hometown, there are some nicer restaurants, which have "artisanal" in them. Or... "farm." "Sustainably... thinged." The pig is local. The pig is a neighbor. Who got out of control. And we made him into dinner and lunch.
Drew: You have a bit about how much choice we have at restaurants now, so I was curious to know how you chose Camilo's.
Maria: (laughing) I'm so sorry.
Drew: No, no! I was wondering if you considered this place a kind of safe space from all that.
Maria: I don't know what it's like, but it seems good. I like new experience. And it's got white napkins. How bad could it be? It's very non-threatening. ... I just want to have whatever they bring me. I used to work in restaurants, and I've not been very good at it, so I appreciate whatever happens. I think it's amazing that anything got done -- that someone opened a restaurant, that someone hired servers. Do you realize how much organization and how much chutzpah it takes to get to that point? Supplies? The legalities? The permits? That takes forethought. And also design. You want it to look good, you want it to smell good. And it's a face-to-face thing. Those people are going to be back next week. They probably live in the neighborhood. If something goes poorly, you're probably going to see those people again. And there's nothing worse than a face-to-face Yelp. I like the passive Yelp.
Drew: Do you use Yelp a lot?
Maria: Yes. Yelp has been so helpful for me when I travel, to go places and to eat places that are better than... Well, I've got nothing against Applebees, but I would rather go to a place that's just as inexpensive but which is somewhat personal. I want to say, "Oh, this guy cares about this sandwich on some level, because he called it something." ... I also Yelp religions when I'm out of town, which is hilarious. You can help mosques or temples or nearby churches, and it is delightful to read, "Well this imam. I just don't like him."
One of Maria's most famous impressions is of her mother, Marilyn. (She even did a whole series starring herself as her mom, which you should watch if you haven't yet.) I asked her how her mother would evaluate our restaurant. Maria was game and immediately sprung into character, but no transcription of her response would do it justice, so click below to hear Maria channel Marilyn.
We talk food restrictions, and I bashfully admit that I'm not supposed to order anything with gluten in it..
Maria: Oh no.
Drew: But I don't say that because I'm an asshole. I say that because I'll actually have an allergic reaction to it.
Maria: And it's a real thing. And so is being vegan. It's a real thing and is maybe the thing that could save the world -- if I and millions of others at the very least could just become vegetarian. So my mocking it comes from a place of ignorance and selfishness.
Drew: So you are not currently vegan or vegetarian.
Maria: I'm going to say that I was vegan for four days once. Four full days. And then I found out that jellybeans are not vegan. And I felt so desperate that I got some fried chicken. I fell into a deep despair. No, I'm not vegetarian. Who am I kidding? I have ham in my refrigerator. And I have watched all the documentaries about how it's killing us, how we're eating fear, that first they came for the cheeseburgers but I was not a cheeseburger, and then they came for the ice cream cones but I was not an ice cream cone. And then they came for me, and there was no one left. So I know I'm not a good person, but I don't seem to have that willingness to reform, and when we look back in history, I will not look good. But I'm going down with Camilo's... which seems to be serving "chickenettes."
Drew: Yeah, I want to know what those are.
Maria: Well, those are for kids, and it's chicken, but the kids will feel even better about it, because it's got...
Drew: It's got a suffix.
Maria: Yes! It has a suffix.
The waiter stops by and we determine that Camilo's does, in fact, permit dinner-sized salads. Maria, pleased, orders that salad with chicken.
Maria: You see, they're flexible. You go to some places and they say, "No, the chef doesn't make big salads. He makes small ones." "Okay, can I have two salads together on two small plates?" "No, because he knows what you're going to do. You're going to eat both of those small salad as if they were one large one." "Okay... but what if you don't tell him?" "No. He is going to know." We musn't ruffle the chefs.
Drew: Because you want the chefs as happy as possible.
Maria: Do you watch "Kitchen Nightmares With Gordon Ramsey"?
Drew: No, he seems scary.
Maria: Oh, it's so delightful. It's like a therapy session, because it makes you start thinking "What's going out back there?" Because there are lives and relationships that are affecting the food. Are we eating happiness? Are we eating some disagreement? There's a place down the street that got a "Kitchen Nightmare" makeover. I do appreciate reality TV because now we know things we didn't before. But is that good?
Drew: I actually didn't know the purpose of "Kitchen Nightmares" is that he actually makes the problems better. So he yells at people until they stop being jerks?
Maria: There's some sort of healing. One big problem is sloth. So let's say this one guy is like, "Let's just get frozen chicken and then leave it outside for a while. I mean, it's pretty frozen still." People just lose track of what's happening. But it does stem from emotional problems. Like someone is not wanting to let go of control -- like they're out serving customers when they should really be doing something else. For example, something I encounter as a business-owner: I am not good at bookkeeping, yet I continue to do it for myself because I am not willing to let go of control. If they were to do a reality program called "Quickbooks Nightmares," and they came into my laptop and say "What the hell is going on in here?" And there'd be some tears.
Drew: Would you allow Gordon Ramsay into your home to yell at you if he were going to fix stuff?
Maria: Oh my god, yes. If he were going to at least a $2,000 makeover -- put in some IKEA stuff, not just particle board.
Bread arrives. I act like I don't miss it.
Maria: Now I feel worried about eating this bread.
Drew: Oh, no, please. You're good.
Maria: But I know I'm going to read a fitness article later...
Drew: Is it good bread? I'm allowed to have people describe bread to me.
Maria: Olive oil is always so good. The bread itself is kind of like a sourdough. It's quite soft. It's very nice. It smells of San Francisco.
Drew: What was food like growing up?
Maria: My mom makes great salads, because she has been on a lot of diets. She makes these salads that are very creative and delicious. She also would make these very dry meats, because you don't want the skin on it and you don't want the fat on it. So I have become very fond of ketchup. I may ask for ketchup when brings my Caesar salad. A dollop of ketchup on the side that I dip my chicken in -- tasty.
Drew: Do you ever get snooty reactions from restaurants that don't want you using ketchup on their food?
Maria: I understand that that's like going to a comedy show and going "Talk about what this other comedian that I like talks about." I understand how the food is an art form. That said, I've purchased the artwork, and it's going into my gullet. But I suppose I can understand how that could inspire rage. But I don't like fancy places. I'm thinking, "Why did I choose this place?" because I'm not a fancy person. I'd just never been here.
Drew: Is the ketchup thing a Bamford thing or is that a Minnesota thing?
Maria: I think it might be a specialty, but I think everyone loves ketchup. My dad will eat anything. I'd like to think I'm upholding a proud tradition of not caring too much about what I eat. "Oh there's a little bit of cold cottage cheese in there? And it has a little bit of mold on it? I wonder if that might be made edible with a little maple syrup. Oh, it's not all stale.
Drew: That's resourceful! You're not supposed to waste food. There's a big movement around that now. Maybe your dad was on the forefront of it.
Maria: Oh, yes. And I even feel like it makes your system stronger, because you're introducing yourself to all this mold and bacteria.
Drew: And it hasn't done you in yet, I'll point out.
Maria: I just got my blood work done. I have great cholesterol. I have good blood pressure, great blood pressure. I feel good. But I do eat gas station food. I've had my share of gas station sandwiches. I had a tuna fish gas station sandwich the other night. It was very good. I don't know if you were in on the 7-11 "Hot Eats, Cool Treats" era. They had the Big Eats, which had a roast beef sandwich with horseradish and onion on it, which was delicious. Now of course you looked at the ingredients, of which there were thousands, but they were together very good, very tasty. It could be still going on. I've tried to cut down on my levels of dextrose intake. I just started look at labels a few years ago. I now I say "Oh, not that probably." But that's what I used to do after shows. I'd stop at 7-11, get a Big Gulp, tuna... BOOM.
Drew: Wait, what's the "boom"?
Drew: Is that still your after-show routine now?
Maria: My new after-show treat is.... [pained noise]. Sometimes I get myself a diet cola still. Sometimes I wait until I get home and then I have some... Greek yogurt.
Drew: Oh, that's not the same.
Maria: No, it is not.
Drew: Let's say you finished a show and wanted to go out for food. Where would you go?
Maria: I definitely would go Canter's, because they give you a boat of pickles, and I love pickles. ... So did you have withdrawals from gluten?
Drew: Yeah, because having a beer when I get home from work had become a thing, but now I don't miss it. I didn't miss the bread. I don't miss the allergic reaction. I do miss donuts.
Maria: What is your opinion on how York Boulevard is changing? It now goes auto body shop, auto body shop, auto body shop... SIX DOLLAR DONUT.
Drew: Really? Wait, is that what it's called?
Maria: Well, now there's this place called Donut Friend. And I was wondering how much different it come be from a regular donut, because a donut is already good. So I haven't been, but I was wondering if you put sauces on it, how much better can it be than just the donut? But then maybe I'm not being a Donut Friend. It looks beautiful from the outside. I haven't been and maybe I should keep my opinions to myself, but sometimes I do worry that it's insulting to the neighborhood. There's the ninety-nine cent store, and right next door there's Six Dollar Donuts.
Drew: I don't think people like having aspirational donuts. That's not okay.
Maria: At least have a working man's donut available. And call it that. "We have ninety-nine cent working man's donuts available. And then if you want a fancy, hip-hop bling-blang donut, we also have that."
Drew: I actually haven't spent that much time in Eagle Rock before. I was surprised that there are so many child-focused establishments on this block.
Maria: That's gentrification, when it's just kids. So you're not going to open up the market to the majority of the population? "No, just art. Just for kids. Just under the age of twelve." That's when you know that the white people have come. Adult art classes are elsewhere.
Drew: Do you see more of these Donut Friend-type places in Eagle Rock?
Maria: Yes. I'm part of the problem, obviously.
Drew: Because famous comedian.
Maria: Yes. "FAMOUS COMEDIAN." I think more people should start describing me that way. I'm part of the problem because I go to the Starbucks. I don't always go to Happy Donut, which is nice too, because I like the coffee shop. I like the wifi.
Drew: But you're holding out on Donut Friend, at least.
Maria: Well, now that I think about it, it's wonderful.
Drew: You have a bit about how cooking isn't ever easier than not cooking. How's that going for you?
Maria: It's going great. My classic breakfast is a scoop of peanut butter and a Diet Coke. My boyfriend has brought that to me in bed as a romantic gesture. I make frozen pizzas. I make salads, really good salads.
Drew: Oh, maybe you inherited that.
Maria: I look at books too, because I love salads. Because I don't always eat so well, so I need to have vegetables at least once a day.
Drew: If you were eating at home tonight, what would you have had?
Maria: Sweetpea Scott would come over and we would make bratwurst -- let's be honest, he made brats -- with lentil soup, so we would probably have another brats-with-lentil soup situation. And I'd drink V8, before supper, so I get my vegetables. Now, if I were by myself, things might go terribly wrong. Sometimes I'll have Raisin Brain with some Quick Oats on top. Quick Oats not cooked. Delicious. Very filling. It makes a problem the next day, of course, but it's delicious. You can put some nuts and banana on top. On a bad day, when I have made the mistake of having ice cream or cookie in the house, I'll make a mug of ice cream, put some peanut butter in it, maybe some cookies stuffed in, as much as I can get into a coffee mug that is bigger than a typical coffee mug, really more of a pint of ice cream almost. And that will be supper.
Drew: That doesn't sound bad.
Maria: It isn't bad. Thank you. It isn't bad. But it's a mood-changer. Within an hour, I'm like [hysterically crying] "Why? Why is life so hard?" "Did you just have cookies? With sugar? Like a sugar bomb?" It just dips immediately. I used to handle it a lot better, but now I'm more delicate. I'm a daffodil. I used to have ice cream for breakfast, and now I can't do that. It will take you out of the game. I don't recommend it. But it is delicious.
Food arrives. Ketchup is joined with chicken Caesar salad, I enjoy a mango chicken, and talk shifts to the travails of eating while on the road.
Maria: I almost wish I were more extroverted. I have a friend who can strike up a conversation anywhere with anybody -- can all of a sudden just have a bunch of new pals, and not in a scary way. It feels like it's okay. It feels in control.
Drew: Oh, my dad is like that. But I didn't get that superpower. Do not feel you have that ability?
Maria: No, I do not have that ability. I think that's part of being famous: You just want people to talk to you, you know? On some level, it's this fantasy of "Oh, I'll always be welcome."
Drew: So earlier you implied that you don't consider yourself to be a famous person.
Maria: I'm famous enough for me. I'm done.
Drew: Do people recognize you on the street?
Maria: If they're into a specific kind of comedy, and they can discern that I've aged. "Are you...? You seem like a.... Yeah! You're older now."
Drew: I would imagine people would recognize you as DeBrie, because that was so recent and because it was Arrested Development and she was just such a great character. And the scene where David Cross smears butter across your face was one of the more... lingering scenes from that season of the show.
Maria: [laughs] I got a few people who recognized me from that. And it is nice, just because it's stuff I would want to be known for. Honestly, I'm not that different from the character DeBrie. If they like that, then we'll probably get along.
Drew: You're not quite the same.
Maria: Well, I could be getting off meth.
I ask her if people every recognize her voice over the phone. Again, because it's Maria Bamford, it's best to hear her relate the story, just because it's interesting to hear her doing an impression of someone doing an impression of herself.
Drew: You do so many characters on "Adventure Time," and it's actually vaguely food-related, because you're Hot Dog Princess, Wildberry Princess, you're Dr. Ice Cream. I was wondering how you go about deciding what a new character is going to sound like, what voice you're going to give it.
Maria's response gives to this question allows her to (a) do her Hot Dog Princess voice and (b) reveal that this voice is inspired by a girl with whom she went to high school.
Drew: You're probably best known for your voices, but listening to your albums, I've noticed you do talk about snack foods often -- maybe more often than most comedians. You're maybe as much "the snack food comedian," really.
Maria: I do like food. But I think it's because I travel so much, and you do eventually learn to appreciate those little orange cracker squares with peanut butter. Or Sun Chips. Or Cheetos. And which one do you want after two shows on a Friday night. I prefer one of those kettle-cooked chips, because those feel healthier. Pringles make me sad. I feel like something has gone wrong. They're also very expensive when bought at a hotel. Peanut M&Ms. Those are very good. But I sometimes have gotten the food removed from the hotel room. "Hey, can you take that stuff out because I have no impulse control." That $12 cashew bottle. It does taste different than a regular cashew. It tastes better. You're just so relaxed because you didn't have to go to the liquor store to get them.
Then Maria asked me about snack foods, and that quickly led to her naming off flavors of Kettle Chips in increasingly manic voices.
I can't think of a more appropriate way for the interview to have concluded.