Pamela Adlon Breaks Down the Delicious Food from 'Better Things'
“Somebody asked me once a few years ago, ‘What's your favorite kind of food?,’ and I said ‘home-cooked,'" the show's creator and star says.
Early on weekend mornings, when her house is still quiet, Pamela Adlon goes to her bookshelf, grabs a beloved cookbook or two, and sits down to read. The star of Better Things, which is ending its five-season FX run on April 25, Adlon is an avid home cook and a believer in the transformative power of a good recipe.
Her current favorite cookbook “was written by women from a ghetto in Germany,” she says. “I’m very into shtetl cookery right now, for some reason.” Anyone who’s watched this season of Better Things shouldn’t be all that surprised, given the delicious-looking borscht she cooked up in Episode 5.
Hearty and homey, Adlon’s on-screen borscht is emblematic of much of the food coming from the Better Things kitchen. It’s birthed handmade Easter cakes and sought-after chili, Yorkshire puddings and craftily created peppermint ice cream. It’s also spawned legions of fans who not only love Adlon and Better Things, but also the emotions the show’s food evokes.
Thrillist talked to Adlon about food, sentiment, and why she thinks Better Things’ heart lies smack in the middle of Sam’s kitchen.
Thrillist: Why was it so important to you to include food in the show? And not just food, but the act of cooking it, of eating it, of sharing it, and beyond.
Pamela Adlon: It's a natural part of the way I mother. Really, the turning point was when I made the lasagna with Duke in Season 2. [In real life] I had started making lasagna from scratch with fresh pasta sheets and I was learning about bechamel sauce and all the different kinds of lasagnas, like meat versus no meat. I also learned to make it starting in the morning, and that it was a daylong process. I wanted to show the process, and I knew that I wanted to do the scene with Olivia [Edward, who plays Duke]. Mikey [Madison, who plays Max] comes in the room and we say all this crazy shit but we're still making the food. So, after we shot the scene, I just said, "I'm going to make the lasagna. Just shoot me making the lasagna."
A really fun fact is that one of my camera operators—Forrest Stangel, who's been with me since the beginning—was a food photographer for Food Network. And so I had this bonus of Forrest being able to make shots that I love. It was kind of like this perfect lightning-in-a-bottle moment. It was the making of the lasagna and then intercutting it with Arnold Hall [Rade Serbedzija] conducting, and we were off to the races.I never wanted the food to look placed. I always wanted it to look like it had been cooked. I want to see steam coming off everything, and I want the pots to be alive. I need water to come out of the sink. I need the light to go on in the fridge. The only thing that's not real, cooking-wise, on set is that the oven doesn't ignite, but we're able to use everything else.
You use the show's kitchen so innately, like you know where everything is and you're not fumbling around trying to figure out where they put the forks. How did you learn that?
I did have some moments in that kitchen where I'm opening drawers and there's just nothing or I'd discover that everybody put their [script] in one drawer.
It was kind of a leap from Season 2 to 3 when we built the house and the set, where I said, "Don't have anything that isn't alive," whether it's in the cabinet or on the counter. For example, I love vintage glass and stuff like that, but they would get these beautiful vintage glass salt and pepper shakers that were 40 years old and from a storage unit. You wouldn't want to use that salt in something you're going to eat or put on your food. I just wanted to have good wine, good olive oil, good balsamic and all of the supplies, so much so that at the end of this season when we wrapped the whole show, the crew got to take home all this beautiful pantry food and condiments.
Did you learn anything about food staging from the show? Like, "oh, we should use white plates because food doesn't look good on dark plates." "Face your ladle to the camera," stuff like that?
It was all just me being extremely nitpicky, and my aesthetic about things. If I'm making something or pouring something into a pan, I'd just be waiting for the camera guys to adjust to get the best angle where we could see sunlight coming through the window so that it would bounce off the steam, and we could see the food pour in. Those are all things that I get off on, because it's all an opportunity.
I made an Easter cake for Season 3 when we were going to the party. You see Sam making this cake, so I really wanted chocolate bunnies from Edelweiss, which is this place in LA that is classic. I used to go there as a kid, and it's where Lucille Ball was inspired to do the conveyor belt chocolate bit from I Love Lucy. But we shot that scene in the fall, maybe. There were no Easter bunnies in stores. I said to the prop guy, "Call Edelweiss. I bet we could get a chocolate bunny from Edelweiss." And then I made the cake and I put the bunny right on top of the cake because I was just making shit up. But it looks beautiful, and it looks cool, and is also extremely edible.
And that makes sense with what you're making on the show, which is homey, not fussy food. You're not painstakingly crafting petit fours or something.
I just thought, “Here's this woman who is a single mom of three and she's finding time to provide food for her family. It's showing people that this is easy, and it's actually way more cost-efficient, less wasteful, and more delicious than getting takeout. Loveless food has no taste.” Somebody asked me once a few years ago, "What's your favorite kind of food?," and I said "home-cooked." There's nothing better.
When I watch Better Things, I see the kitchen being used as a place where power dynamics can shift, like when Sam gets too high and Frankie makes her peppermint ice cream, or when Xander takes over the kitchen in Sam's absence to make his famous shrimp dish. Does that ring true to you, that transference of power and phases in life?
I really wanted to show Frankie cooking in Season 3. Sam wakes up at 4 in the morning and smells something, so she goes in the kitchen and Frankie's making carbonara. That's significant, when a kid that age knows knife skills and can cook and create a meal. It was so thrilling to see Sam's kid take over the kitchen.
In terms of Xander coming over, it's like a horror movie. He reaches into the freezer like he's going into her underwear drawer, and he's in there forever, just feeling around before he pulls out that shrimp. My editor and I, when we watched that, we screamed. We were eating popcorn like we were at a horror movie. That's Sam's place, so it's a whole different vibe when he takes over and it's a signal of his entitlement as opposed to a power move. I mean, that's the hub. The heartbeat of that whole house is that kitchen.
Are there foods that you've made on the show that you'll always associate with the show and with your experience there? Or even that you've had off-screen that make you think of making Better Things?
I've incorporated so many foods that I make into the show, so it reminds me of my own family and the meals that we have at home.
It's fun to watch the show as an Angeleno and recognize the restaurants you go to. How did you pick what those will be?
I didn't want it to be like a show where characters are having lunch and you don't know where they are. There's no significance. Even if it's a restaurant that I made up, like in Season 3 when Sam's with Rich and they're at this Japanese restaurant and he's like, "Oh, my God, I can never get a reservation here." And this family next to them has a garage sale on the table, with toys and books and the mother is reading a story. It's like, the most disruptive thing, but you're talking about how the restaurant is, so you’ve got to include all that.
You don't just want food to have no meaning. It's an opportunity in the show, just like music, art, clothing, or furniture. Everything's an opportunity to be something that is more than just whatever you're settling for.