Special Skills (Featuring Prosciutto-wrapped Shrimp with Garlicky Vinaigrette Dip)
I never intended to be a cook.
It was a secret passion. “Cooking” was listed as a special skill on my acting resume, along with ”accents” (a couple), “skiing” (a winter when I was younger), and “fencing” (I took a class for one week at camp when I was 9).
In my early 20s, I was a divorced, out-of-work, alcoholic actress living in Los Angeles. Unrepresented by a talent agent, I studied the Breakdown services, a listing of roles being cast for which prospective actors could submit themselves. There were tons of student films and low-budget productions for non-union stage, film, television, trade shows, and commercials.
With the dogged optimism of a 23-year-old, I sat at my grey Formica table in my Laurel Canyon bungalow circling all the acting parts for females between ages 13 and 35. I jammed headshots and resumes into 8×10 envelopes for hours on end every week.
“New television series seeking female actress in her 20’s. Talent must be comfortable cooking on camera. Paid non-union job.”
I circled it in three different colors and rushed the stuffed envelope to the mailbox.
My imagination ran wild— a series regular, I’d be the main character of a television show about a cook. I’d be like Monica Geller on Friends, but less annoying. Or like Diane Weist in Hannah and Her Sisters, but less neurotic. I’d be me; I’d be how I am in my life, cooking and entertaining, being funny and cute enough to carry a whole show. The mental illness of being a performer is that you always think the next audition will be the unlocker of all your dreams. I’d felt it a million times, but this audition integrated acting with my love (and actual special skill) of cooking. It felt both personal and possible.
When my phone rang a week later, a man said, “Is this Alison Tucker? We’d love to have you come in to audition for our show,” I brazenly replied, “I know.”
There was no script or sides to look at beforehand so I leaned into my intuition for character development. I’d been nailing my trendy alt-girl look for years and chose to wear a short black pleated skirt and a sky-blue fake cashmere cardigan. I put my favorite chef’s knife in my purse for good measure.
I held the address in my left hand, the wheel in my right, and The Thomas Guide, the official ring-bound book of street maps for all of Los Angeles, in my lap. This was the 90s, before cell phones and GPS and the nice lady who tells you where to turn left and right. I was headed into an area of the valley I didn’t know at all.
I slipped my car into park and flipped down the visor of my 1965 red Mustang to review my reflection–purse red lips together, comb bangs with fingers, smooth powder onto nose, and pinch cheeks to bring some color to the surface. This was the drill down before every audition. I always did them and I almost always booked a callback.
The address was to a house, not a movie studio, black box theater, or office space where most of my auditions were held. A piece of yellow paper torn haphazardly from a legal pad had “AUDITION THIS WAY” written in red Sharpie and was taped to the side of the home where I’d been instructed to go. This was a house, or more specifically a trailer behind a house deep in Chatsworth, far beyond my oft-traveled LA neighborhoods. I snorted at an old boat tilted onto cinder blocks in the yard and yelped when a pit bull ferociously threw itself against the gate between the properties next door. They were like bad neighborhood set dressing, too on the nose to be true… and yet here they were.
Your typical actress, gorgeous, 20’s was quickly descending the metal trailer steps I was about to climb. I smiled my nervous trying-to-be-charming grin but she didn’t even look up.
The trailer felt hollow as I entered. There was a kitchen set built by an Allen wrench and a few rolls of duct tape. There was a wall oven and a few large X’s written on more yellow paper on the counter that I assumed represented stovetop burners. On a cutting board lay a zucchini, carrot, and eggplant—a phallic still life that jolted my dreams back to reality.
“Huh,” I said, with a sharp exhale.
“Ccchello!” A large bald man in a puckering white button-down shirt entered from the other side of the trailer. His accent was Eastern Bloc-ish. “Velcome!”
“Thanks, I’m here for the audition?” I said with more incredulity than confidence. I scoured every flat surface I could see for a sign-in sheet or something official.
“Yes, this is right place! Welcome to SEXY COOKING SHOW!” he was brimming with determination and presumptuousness.
“This is Sexy Cooking Show! You have audition now.” His voice was excited, but not overtly treacherous. He was like a Harvey Weinstein in training, without the fully formed depravity.
“Oh wow. Um… No, thanks.”
I laugh when I think of how polite I was, thanking him for putting together this cute actress trap. Thanks so much!
I turned and left quickly.
I didn’t call anyone. I didn’t report it. That’s not what you did back then…or not what I did.
Plus, I was packing a well-sharpened Henkels 8-inch.
A few weeks later, when the shock had twisted itself into a tellable story, I recounted the ordeal to my parents over dinner.
My dad, always eager to lighten a grim moment said, “Just wait, a few months from now The Sexy Cooking Show will be a huge hit on network television!”
My mom chimed in with her perfect TV announcer voice, “This week, Meryl Streep, on a very special The Sexy Cooking Show. Or, how about, Helen Mirren, The Queen Mother and Public Broadcasting present The Sexy Cooking Show!”
And we laughed for what felt like hours. Because I had not been assaulted. I’d gotten out of what could have been a truly terrifying situation. I know that I was lucky and more so I recognize how far we have come in society to not accept these situations as the price you pay for showing up.
I almost never think about that day in the trailer, but recently I was shooting an episode of Afternoon Live, which is a talk show here in Portland that I cook on every month and I had a moment of reflection. How lucky I am to have not given up on so many of my dreams.
And my recipe for Prosciutto-wrapped Shrimp with Garlic Vinaigrette Dip
Prosciutto-wrapped shrimp with garlic vinaigrette dip
Makes 20 shrimp
- 20 medium to large shrimp, deveined and shelled
- 5 slices of prosciutto
- Olive oil for drizzling
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat the broiler on full power. Line a sheet pan with aluminum foil.
- Set a prosciutto slice on a cutting board and cut it into four rectangular pieces (cut down the center of the prosciutto slice in both). Lay one shrimp down on top of one of the strips of prosciutto and roll the center of the shrimp. There will be a little on each end of the shrimp that is not wrapped and that is fine. Set the shrimp on the foil lined sheet and continue until all the shrimp are wrapped.
- Drizzle the shrimp with olive oil and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper.
- Broil for 2-3 minutes each side and serve with dip.
Garlicky vinaigrette dip
- 3 cloves of garlic, peeled
- 1 tablespoon Dijon
- 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
- 2 teaspoons honey
- ½ cup olive oil
- Blend all ingredients together in a food processor or blender.
- Serve with shrimp as dip.