How I Survived an Awkward Family Dinner with My Humor Intact

Stand-up comedian Zach Zimmerman recounts their first family dinner in four years, proving with their trademark humor that you can go home again

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Is It Hot in Here by Zach ZimmermanMindy Tucker/Courtesy ‎Chronicle Books

The battle began at the Myrtle Beach Costco. I was steering a shopping cart with enough food to stock a doomsday bunker when I spotted a bulky bag of spinach.

“We could make a salad,” I suggested.

“You can make a salad,” Mom answered. “I’m not gonna have any salad.”

First blood had been drawn.

Mom’s dinner table had always been a parade of simple Southern recipes, dishes that seem to say, “We’re all gonna die of heart attacks, so let’s do it as a family.” For a newly minted New York City slicker to return home and suggest a salad not of the macaroni persuasion, on Thanksgiving of all days, was blasphemy against God. Of course, I no longer believe in God.

It had already been a challenge for Mom to get me home for Thanksgiving. I’d skipped the last four years, opting for romantic trips abroad with my boyfriend. Now, newly brokenhearted, I decided to pull a prodigal child: do the right thing and return home.

“Spirit flies direct from New York,” Mom texted me.

Going home feels like going backward, I thought but didn’t say. The flight was turbulent enough to induce labor, but we managed to land without any change to the number of souls onboard. My entire family—two sisters, brother, Mom, Dad and my older sister’s three children—were in the airport lobby with a “Welcome Home, Zach” sign. The spectacle suggested I was returning from war;  I’d just forsaken my familial obligations. My mom smiled and gave me a one-handed hug, the other hand gripping my 6-year-old niece’s baby doll.

I tossed my tiny bag in Dad’s truck and rode shotgun. We talked about the weather and city living. Meanwhile, I worried that if I mentioned my ex-boyfriend too loudly,  he might drive us into a ditch. There’s a tension in Southern air—the strange bedfellows of homophobia and humidity, and the ever-present terror that the person you were might be long behind you, but they are still breathing down your neck.

On Thanksgiving morning, Mom was in the kitchen preparing cardiovascular warfare. I observed her at work with enough distance to be curious, almost ethnographic, and offered commentary on my findings.

“You put sugar in the deviled eggs?!”

“Just a little,” she said. Matter-of-fact.

“You know there’s already sugar in  practically everything?” I explained. “Big Food adds sugar to keep us addicted.”

“Oh, is that so,” she said, stirring and not changing a thing.

Two Deviled EggsStephanieFrey/Getty Images

I carved out a corner on the counter and started to put together my simple salad.  Spinach, a few tomatoes, some cheese. I’d never really been in the kitchen much as a kid. Chores were gendered and uneven in our house: Women did the cooking, washed the dishes, cleaned the bathroom, kitchen and living room, and ironed clothes. Men mowed the lawn. On the TV was the Macy’s Parade, a fabulous Broadway musical number snuck in between the masculine Spider-Man and bro-y Hulk balloons. I watched it as I finished my three-ingredient masterpiece and asked Mom if I should put on the dressing now or later.

“Yeah, put it on there,” she answered. “And stick it in the fridge so it stays cold.”

Maybe Mom was warming up to a collaborator in her kitchen, her queer kid doing her work. She told me she loves me, something she says so often it’s like she’s trying to convince us both.

“Think you’ll have any?” I asked.

“Nah, I’m not gonna have any salad.”

My two nieces set the dining room table, used so infrequently that it feels like playing house. Every seat would be full this holiday thanks to my older sister’s addiction to having children. My nephew and nieces, referred to as “the babies,” don’t know me well at all, a casualty of my not visiting.  A friend told me you can show up for a niece or nephew at any age, but I feel bad that we’re not closer.

I didn’t grow up  in this  house, so it always  feels a bit fake to think of it as “home.” My parents moved from Roanoke, Virginia, to Myrtle Beach,  South Carolina, during my first year of college. Generations had lived in a small circle in the  Shenandoah Valley, until my entrepreneurial, adventurous mother set her sights on the shore. She built her dream (20-minutes-from-the-) beach house.

Her act of generational, geographic rebellion must have been genetic. I was living my dream too, in New York. Ever since high school, when a coach bus drove me and 40 classmates to watch the witches of Oz from the nosebleeds, I knew I wanted to live there. After a too-long tour of duty in  Chicago, a cataclysmic breakup finally jettisoned me to the city of 4 a.m. bars. I was living my (sharing-a-single-bathroom-with-three-other-adult-humans) dream. If everything turned out exactly as we planned, we’d be very bored gods.

When the meal was ready, everyone took their seats. Dad emerged from hibernation. He looked gentler now than I remembered, a soft, gray beard hiding his neck. He never hit us, except with zingers and Bible verses. A pastor in his past life, Dad could deliver full-length sermons at the dinner table, hellfire and brimstone as appetizer and aperitif to any meal. Today, hunger bested the Holy Spirit.

“Dear Heavenly Father, we thank you for the meal. In Jesus’s precious name we pray, amen.”

The prayer ended, and my 10-year-old nephew outed me. “Zach’s eyes weren’t closed!”

Mom shot me a stare but broke it quickly. A four-year time-out had put everyone on their best behavior. We silently agreed to try to keep things light on Turkey Day. Instead of yelling about atheism,  Christianity, Trump, abortion, homosexuality, kids in cages, racism, capitalism and socialism, we passed the mac ’n’ cheese and potatoes.

“None for Zach. Zach’s a vegetarian,” my younger sister said when the turkey made its rounds.

Our plates were filled and emptied.

“Why don’t we all say something we’re thankful for?” my mom pitched.

It’s a tradition we’d done as children. I always sat anxiously during the game, shame and fear pulsing through my body because I knew there was only one right answer.

“Jesus Christ,” my youngest niece said dutifully.

I wondered if her answer would change over time—and as drastically as I had—from a straight, meat-eating, Christian conservative to a queer, vegetarian, atheist socialist. Would she get the space and time to dig and grow, or just pour some more sugar in the deviled eggs?

After a couple more thankful answers—a few Jesuses and a gas-price joke from Dad—I became brave enough to share my truth.

“I’m thankful for Lady Gaga.”

“Zachary,” my mom chided.

I smiled and course-corrected: “I’m thankful to be with my family.”

“Aww,” she cooed.

Slices of her no-bake cheesecake and a pecan pie from Cracker Barrel, recruited in recent years to help out as the matriarch aged, were distributed. A plastic pitcher of sweet tea met its demise. Dad retreated to the recliner in his bedroom to watch football with my brother, while my sisters cleared the table and loaded the dishwasher. At 15 minutes total, the meal was more of a feeding than a sit-down dinner. Its brevity kept us from hurting each other. Family members always have the nuclear codes for each other, the precise collection of words and phrases that, when entered, cause total annihilation. Tonight’s short summit staved off mutually assured destruction.

I helped my sisters put the leftovers in the fridge when I saw the carnage. Drowning in buttermilk, waterboarded by ranch, wrinkled beyond recognition: my salad. I reached for the bowl to see if any of it could be salvaged, a mother not ready to say goodbye to her child, but the ingredients had already decomposed. I considered taking a bite, but dessert had left me no room.

Splashes and spilled ranch dressing with a spoonEvgeniiAnd/Getty Images

This victory would go to my mother. Her subtle but effective smear campaign against something green on her dinner table was a success. Perhaps it was a fool’s battle to begin with—to push against the juggernauts, the parade balloons of Tradition and Mom and Home—but I tried and failed with pride.

Mom passed behind me as I poured the aftermath into the trash.

“Oh no,” she said. “Guess none of us are having salad.”

Excerpted from Is It Hot in Here (or Am I Suffering for All Eternity for the Sins I Committed on Earth)? by Zach Zimmerman, published by Chronicle Books. Copyright © 2023 by Zach Zimmerman.

Zach Zimmerman
Zach Zimmerman is a writer and stand-up comedian whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, The Washington Post and elsewhere. Zach is the author of "Is It Hot in Here (or Am I Suffering for All Eternity for the Sins I Committed on Earth)?" As a stand-up comedian, Zach was named a TimeOut NY Comic to Watch, and Zach’s album “Clean Comedy” debuted on the Billboard Top 10.