June 21, 2021

Hoagies, Wawa and that funeral spread: The stories told by the food in “Mare of Easttown”

Sure, “Mare of Easttown” is a grim, gray-scale murder mystery set in a small town where everyone seems to have secrets — but it’s also food-heavy enough that people have started affectionately referring to it as “Hoagie Broadchurch.” 

HBO is aware of the series’ reputation, and continues to tweet things like “The Mare of Easttown food pyramid: fries, peanut butter, spray cheese, vitamins, and beer” while legions of fans have taken to kicking back on Sunday nights with Rolling Rock and cheesesteaks. 

But under the surface, the use of food in the series tells a bigger story about the region in which it is set, while also giving viewers insight into various characters’ motivations and foreshadowing their development. Put another way, there’s more in that cup of Wawa coffee than initially meets the eye. 

Let’s break down some of the most memorable food items shown on the series thus far. 

All the Wawa coffee 

During last winter’s Television Critics Association press tour, Kate Winslet described her soft spot for Wawa, the Pennsylvania-native convenience store chain, which developed during her time filming “Mare” in Delco. 

“Wawa was a big part of my life for well over a year,” Winslet said, before going on to describe how co-star Evan Peters developed an obsession with “The Gobbler” hoagie, which is loaded with turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce. 

“I’d be like, ‘I think I’m worried for you now, Evan; you keep getting this Gobbler,'” she said. “He was like, ‘No, you’ve gotta have it.’ He was fully committing, I tell you.” 

And, indeed, Wawa — specifically the coffee served there — has been a near-ubiquitous presence in the series, in both obvious and understated ways. It’s threaded throughout the show as both a regional name-check and a subtle opportunity for character development. 

Let’s just take, for example, when Zabel first attempts to introduce himself to Mare. You see his eyes linger on the Wawa coffee cup on her desk. The next morning, he brings her a Wawa coffee and, upon seeing she already has one in hand, jokes, “That for me? Because I got you one.” He continues to bring her coffee, exactly to her specifications — “two creams, no sugar” — every morning as a form of team-building, à la Ted Lasso and his “morning biscuits with the boss.” 

This clues us into the kind partner he is going to be; he’s disarmingly amenable and isn’t there to step on Mare’s toes. He even says during one of their first interactions, “You’re the chef, I’m the sous-chef. What are we cooking?” The morning he goes to give Mare her coffee and she’s gone, after having been instructed to take some time off after she planted drugs on Carrie, it’s a foreshadowing that their relationship will be cut short (RIP Zabel). 

It’s also worth pulling back a bit to investigate what Mare’s reliance on Wawa coffee means. Why not Starbucks, a local shop or a plastic mug from home? Again, it’s a nice regional nod. Wawa, which was started in 1964 in Wawa, Pa., has developed an enthusiastic fandom. People plan Wawa road trips (and write plays about Wawa road trips) and there’s a wiki-page dedicated to analyzing various facets of the chain’s offerings. 

But from a character perspective, it’s an indication that Mare is busy. According to Kae Lani Palmisano, a Philadelphia-based food writer and historian who wrote WHYY’s digital food history series “Delishstory,” the expedient nature of Wawa is one of its most endearing features. 

“There was a point in time where you could buy like a 20-ounce Wawa plastic mug and serve yourself the coffee,” she said. “All you do then is get rung up at the counter and you’re on your way. The whole process literally takes like five minutes.” 

Mare would surely get frustrated behind a Starbucks line full of customers with highly specific coffee orders (while she wouldn’t ever ask for it, I’d love to hear Mare say “oat milk”). With Wawa, she’s in, out and onto the next crime scene. That said, it’s also likely a source of routine in a life that feels increasingly unmoored. 

According to food writer and culinary historian Joanna O’Leary, you get to know your Wawa employees. 

“People recognize you,” she said. “You see, I don’t know, ‘Martha,’ who has worked at the Wawa for however long. She works the morning shift, so you see her everyday at 6 a.m., Monday through Friday, and she’s almost like a member of your family. You shoot the s**t with her.” 

It’s sort of like Dawn, who works at the local convenience store in Easttown — though obviously instead of shooting the s**t it’s more like, “Mare, why haven’t you found my daughter yet?” In a different world, Dawn could have been portrayed as working at a Wawa. 

Mare of Easttown director and executive producer Craig Zobel recently told Decider, “If we could have gotten to shoot in a Wawa, we would have.” Though Wawa is literally threaded throughout the show because his costume designers used actual Wawa customers as inspiration, Zobel said.

“I would get texts from the costume designer that were like, ‘What about this person?'” he said. “It was someone she had covertly taken a picture of at Wawa as a reference for the show. So yeah, that was just our kind of newfound love of Wawa.”

The Italian restaurant where Mare busted Brianna 

While the food in “Mare of Easttown” is perceived with a wink and a nod by most people, according to O’Leary, the creators of the show are obviously overlaying the use of food with a lot of meaning. 

“The food in ‘Mare of Easttown’ is the locus of violence, secrecy and death and conflict,” she said.  

This is established in the first episode. When Mare is called to investigate a prowler, she’s called out to Grub Road. Later that day, Erin burns her dad’s dinner, which causes him to fly off the handle and sets up the situation where she’s not allowed to use his car the night she is murdered. 

But the use of food as a device to introduce secrets comes into clearer focus in the second episode, when Mare goes to arrest Brianna (Mackenzie Lansing) after she assaulted Erin at the Italian restaurant where she works, which also happens to belong to her parents. “Should we maybe do this outside?” Zabel asks Mare as he realizes what she’s doing. “Or away from the staff and the guests watching?” 

Instead, Mare uses the opportunity to shame Brianna on the spot, while simultaneously revealing who Brianna is to the entire town; the dining room of the restaurant was packed and, after all, people talk in Easttown. 

The fact that Brianna’s parents own an Italian-American restaurant — a kind of kitschy old-school place with fake ivy crawling over the curved archways and murals of the Tuscan countryside — is a nice touch as well. According to Palmisano, there was an influx of Italian immigration to Pennsylvania in the late 19th century, which helped kickstart the development of Italian-American food. 

“You have culinary influences and techniques from Europe that are being reinterpreted with North American ingredients,” she said. “In the old country, there wasn’t as much meat and cheese, so traditional Italian dishes aren’t so meat and cheesy-heavy. So then they get to America and there are so many different types, you can make lasagna with multiple cheeses or you can make sauce or ‘gravy,’ as they say in Philly, that would have Italian sausage and meatballs. And the meatballs would have both beef and pork.” 

You see evidence of this in Brianna’s parents’ restaurant — check out the massive plates of spaghetti and meatballs while Brianna is being led out of the dining room in cuffs. 

Mare’s Rolling Rock (and everyone else’s Yuengling) 

The biggest mystery in “Mare of Easttown” is, obviously, who killed Erin McMenamin. The second biggest mystery, however, is why Mare drinks Rolling Rock when everyone around her drinks Yuengling. 

Eater Philly took a really informative deep-dive into the question and considered everything from differences in alcohol by volume, to political considerations (Dick Yuengling was a very vocal Trump supporter in 2016) to the nationwide decline in sales of craft beer.

Writer Dayna Evans also brings up that perhaps the distinction is a narrative device: “Is this setting up a tension between Mare (of Easttown) and people (likely also of Easttown) around her?” 

As a former English major, I’m partial to this read of the creator’s choice to put a Rolling Rock in Mare’s hand. As the series has progressed it becomes clear that while Mare knows everyone in town, she doesn’t really know them. Her family is hiding things from her, her ex-husband lied to her face about helping Erin with things for the baby and it even looks like her best friend, Lori, may have something to do with the murder. 

Additionally, as a detective, everyone is friendly with Mare until they come under her magnifying glass. We watch over and over again as people turn on Mare when she begins investigating their perceived misdeeds, like when Brianna’s dad stalks Mare around town or when Kenny bristles under questioning. She is one of the locals, but she’s separate from them — kind of an “in Easttown but not of Easttown” situation, so to speak.

Maybe her choice in beer is an indication of this. 

The moment when Ryan beat a bully with a school lunch tray

As O’Leary mentioned, secrecy and food intersect over and over again throughout the series, including when Deacon Mark (James McArdle) is prompted to confess to having a deeper relationship with Erin after he is assaulted by some local kids after picking up takeout. 

However, one of the most poignant examples of this pattern is when Moira (Kassie Mundhenk) is being bullied in the lunchroom by a boy who throws food on her. Her brother, Ryan (Cameron Mann) jumps into action and proceeds to hit the bully over the head over and over again with a school lunch tray. 

“[Ryan] is do disturbed by his father confiding in him about his affair again that he takes out his aggression,” she said. “Not just by defending Moira who was interrupted in her quest to have a simple lunch, but he uses the lunch tray as a weapon to beat the kid.” 

That altercation, in which food is both a backdrop and a catalyst, leads to Ryan telling Lori about his dad’s secret. 

Zabel’s dinners with his mom and Mare 

As Mare and Zabel’s relationship develops, we see them engaging outside of work more and more over food, including when Zabel asks her out for dinner. While eating, he confides in Mare that he’s trying to become a more adventurous eater. 

“Which is actually his way of communicating to Mare that he’s shy and how much it took for him to ask her out,” O’Leary said. “The food they’re trying is fancier food and his story as confessional is a proxy for his emotional and sexual interiority. But she’s either tone deaf to it or doesn’t care because she just wants to talk about the case.” 

Zabel’s mother was leery of Mare, especially so after Mare barges in on them having dinner together at their shared home. 

“When she knocks on the door and interrupts that dinner, which is a moment of intimacy between mother and son, she wedges herself right in the middle of that,” she said. “So that’s why she gets a hearty slap in the face when Zabel dies.” 

The spread at the visitation for Betty Carrol 

One of the first things we see at the visitation for Betty Carrol, one of Mare’s neighbors, is Helen loading up her plate at a folding table that’s packed with huge serving bowls of macaroni and cheese and cold potato salad, as well as smaller platters of odds and ends. This is a nice, subtle nod to Pennsylvania food culture, O’Leary said. 

“When people set out a spread for a barn raising or a church supper or anything like that, there’s an element of like — okay, you know in Korean food there’s banchan, all the little side dishes?” she said. “In central Pennsylvania, there’s an element of that where you have lots of relishes and pickled things, alongside a lot of hot and cold starches, like cold macaroni salad and hot potato salad.

This scene is another time that secrets are revealed over mealtime. As Helen is bringing a forkful of potato salad to her mouth, Glenn, Betty’s husband, makes an announcement. 

“Listen up,” he yells from the stairway landing. “First, I want to thank you all for coming here today to honor my dear Betty. But there’s something else I’d like to say, and I’d like to get it off my chest. I mean, I… I… I was going to tell Betty, but — but now it looks like that isn’t going to happen.” 

He pauses, then continues: “I can’t live with this anymore. Uh, I can’t live with the guilt. I had an affair with Helen Fahey.” 

Cut to Helen choking on her potato salad and Mare trying to keep her Rolling Rock down. 

That glorious cheesesteak and hoagie gift basket 

About 15 minutes into the first episode, we see Mare chowing down on what is the first of the many cheesesteaks to appear in the series. Fellow food obsessives have taken the time to pause, zoom and enhance on the cheesesteak frames and have determined that Mare forgoes peppers and onions on her order (which O’Leary informs me you can order by just saying, “I’ll have it without“). 

Hoagies, pronounced “whoogies,” are also a fixture. In the second episode, we find Mare sitting on her couch after bailing on Richard’s stuffy book party — where she tried and subsequently spit out the duck liver toast appetizer — swilling beer and unwrapping a ham, cheese and shredded lettuce hoagie. When Brianna’s dad tosses a milk jar through her window, the shattered glass doesn’t stop Mare from finishing her sandwich. 

A lot has been made about Mare actually eating like a normal person in the series. While chowing down on sandwiches isn’t a revolutionary act, it can feel like it when pop culture has, for so long, fetishized deprivation (for more on this, April Davidauskis’ “How Beautiful Women Eat: Feminine Hunger in American Pop Culture” is a must-read). Mare eats for energy and convenience. As such, portability and carbs are a plus. 

Both cheesesteaks and hoagies have a strong regional resonance, as well. According to Palmisano, the gift basket that Richard brought her, with hoagies from the real Laspada’s and cheesesteaks from the fake Coco’s, shows some state know-how, as well. 

“The gift basket is so unique and it paints this accurate picture of how where you get cheesesteaks is not where you get your hoagies,” she said. “The sandwiches don’t cross. You have your cheesesteak palace and your hoagie place. It’s like the distinction between the Pennsylvania beers, Yuengling and Rolling Rock.”

The popularity of Mare is feeding back into the real world of sandwiches, too. According to the Philly Voice, Don’s Deli, a Delaware County deli, has created a “The Mare” hoagie. It features roasted turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing and mayonnaise on a long, fresh Serpe & Sons Bakery roll (sound familiar?). 

“The ingredients of The Mare are similar to other sandwiches in our area, like the Gobbler and the Bobbie,” McKinney told The Delco Times. “We chose this type of sandwich because it’s ‘a Delco thing’ and we named it after Delco’s favorite girl!”