The cucumber salad Lauren Lane’s family makes was traditionally served at her grandmother’s Thanksgivings. “It was refreshing, especially when you were eating all the carbs and the tryptophan,” she recalls. “And it has jalapeños—a little bite to it. At my grandmother’s house we ate huge meals! My grandparents moved to the city, but they still ate in those farm rhythms: on Thanksgiving, the men would all eat first. It was always put forth as a nurturing thing . . . look what we women cooked for you. I didn’t like it. It wasn’t pretty.”
Pretty or not, Lane likes food that comes with a narrative. Widely known as the kind of actress who inhabits her roles right down to their psychiatric DNA, she’ll make up a food story if a real one isn’t available, and passionately drifts toward the things that interest her.
Last fall, she ran out to buy Bake until Bubbly, a retro casserole cookbook. Aunt Bea, she decided, would serve such things to Andy and Opie. More recently, Lane went in a different direction. “I just got a whole book about Yorkshire pudding,” she announces. Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen ate Yorkshire pudding, not to mention the Queen Mum and perhaps Helen Mirren—all women whose work Lane admires. So late this December, Lane’s small household—her mother and 12-year-old daughter, Kate—will probably watch an ancient VHS tape of A Christmas Carol while eating rare roast beef and Yorkshire pudding because that’s what an Austin Anglophile does. There’s room for Mayberry and Bloomsbury; it’s a pretty big kitchen.
Still, nesting is relatively new to Lane who, before moving to Austin eight years ago, lived in Los Angeles, working long hours as Fran Drescher’s icy nemesis C.C. Babcock on The Nanny. On rare off hours, she did serious theater with Tim Robbins’s Actors’ Gang. Most nights, she remembers, dinner consisted of a turkey hot dog and a small square of unfrosted sheet cake.
“I wouldn’t call my relationship with food the most balanced back then,” she says. “Sort of like, ‘maybe I shouldn’t entertain myself with this giant cake?’”
In 1998 came daughter Kate, but by the time Kate turned four, Lane decided Los Angeles was no place to raise a child; her series had been cancelled and her agent wasn’t encouraging about Hollywood roles for 40-year-old women. The market for parts might once again open, but “probably not till I turned 60,” she remembers—another unpretty story, but a happy ending was just around the corner.
Once in Austin, she found work as a theater professor, began acting in local productions and gathered friends, spending more time cooking than ever before. The South Austin house she remodeled from the ground up pretty much revolves around the kitchen. It’s the first thing you see from the front door, and though its fixtures may be top-of-the-line, its ambience is relaxed and friendly: the Mac in the corner blasts show tunes; the big ipe-wood island is half covered with books, snacks, old china, a sewing machine and one or two of the vintage plastic thermoses Lane considers collectible.
“I can’t hide my messes in here,” she says. “The three-second rule is witnessed by everyone.” So what? The entertainment here is food with a story, not housekeeping. “My big fun is friends coming over for Mad Men,” she says, “cooking a fillet with bacon wrapped around it . . . I like to drink martinis and laugh.”
Most meals, however, are non-martini’d. On Sundays, Lane roasts enough vegetables to fill a week of brown-bag lunches. “I really love that time,” she says, “following a recipe, learning as I go, with a program open on the computer, folding clothes . . . Kate sitting at the island with all her homework books spread out.”
These days, Lane doesn’t wait until Thanksgiving to make her beloved cucumber salad—it shows up on the menu pretty often. Years ago, in an attempt to impress a boyfriend’s snooty East Coast parents, she whipped up the salad in their opulent home. Distracted by the crosscurrents of emotional tension in the kitchen, she forgot to rinse the cucumbers and onions after they had soaked in brine overnight.
“Everyone tried to eat it, politely,” Lane remembers. “And then I sheepishly suggested that everyone stop eating it because it was basically cucumbers in seawater.”
Lane has since learned to rinse.