“Their dietary preferences are a little bit mind-blowing,” says Susannah McCarthy, props master for HBO’s Mare of Easttown, of its inhabitants. The miniseries, which aired its finale on Sunday, has enraptured audiences for seven weeks — yes, in part due to the mysterious murder at its core. But as much thanks to its highly Pennsylvanian milieu, and the fact that our highly Pennsylvanian hero, Mare — whose O’s stretch longer than the Delaware Water Gap — is played by arguably the most British living person, Kate Winslet. But the Oscar-winning actress is not afraid of a challenge (this is a woman who’s willingly worked with James Cameron twice, after all), and her commitment to inhabiting Mare on both the inside and out has been remarkable to watch. Never more so, however, than when it comes to her on-camera eating.
Not since Tony Soprano has eat-acting been so enmeshed with a performance, and Winslet couldn’t have done it without McCarthy, a local to the Philadelphia suburb where the show was shot, who made each hoagie, cheesesteak, and Rolling Rock a reality. Every edible moment, McCarthy explains, was scripted by showrunner Brad Ingelsby, also native of the area. And she insists the can’t-be-faked authenticity is largely to credit for the show’s ecstatic reception. “My daughter went into the doctor’s office this morning and all the nurses were talking about it,” she says. “The biggest compliment to me is that here, where we worked on it, people love it.”
Just ahead of the series finale, McCarthy hopped on the phone with Vulture to break down the frequently cheese-smothered details behind some of Mare and Mare’s most memorable edible moments.
Episode 1, the breakfast sandwich
The audience’s first introduction to Mare’s outstanding eating habits comes early on in “Miss Lady Hawk Herself”: driving her massive truck with one hand, an aluminum-wrapped, oozing breakfast sandwich in the other. Even as she gets a call from her ex-husband (who unbeknownst to Mare is trying to inform her of his new engagement), she does not stop tearing off egg-y mouthfuls. This was also the show’s first installment in the viral screenshot-to-Twitter pipeline. The sandwich is from a local spot called Tom Jones Restaurant, and “I think it was hilarious that it caused such a storm,” McCarthy says. “I think one of the U.K. newspapers said she was eating a hot dog and someone else said it was a pretzel with mustard. It was all very scandalous and amazing.”
The prop — and Mare’s handling of it — was in the script, McCarthy adds, and was meant to be an initial tell as to who this woman is, and how she goes about her life. “That’s what Brad wanted for her,” she says, “is to have a sloppy sandwich and [be] drinking Wawa coffee, just, on the way.” Mare is ultimately forced to drop the sandwich to literally arrest someone, which is likely the only thing that could have come between the two.
Spray cheese on cheeseballs
Shortly after, we get our first glimpse of Mare’s home life: her house, her family — and so, so many Delco kitchen staples. “The request from the creatives was to fill the house with junk food,” McCarthy says. “Myself and almost all of my crew are local to this region so we just bought all the junk food local to the region: Herr’s potato chips — Herr’s is a local company — and Cheez Whiz and cheeseballs and pub mix and circus peanuts, liters of soda.”
When Mare walks in (though it’s more of a hobble, as she’s injured her ankle during the arrest), she’s greeted by her nosy mother, Helen (played by Jean Smart), and her cousin the priest, Father Dan Hastings (Neil Huff), drinking cocktails at the kitchen table. “In that scene, the cast made Mare’s kitchen their kitchen,” says McCarthy. And when Mare takes a can of sprayable cheese and squirts it onto a cheeseball, you better believe, “That was all Mare, putting that Cheez Whiz on that cheeseball. I mean, that’s brilliant. I think one of the shoppers bought the Cheez Whiz and it was just on that day,” she adds. As to whether Winslet needed any tips on how to fire off the can of bright-orange paste, McCarthy insists: “No! She is perfect. She owns her props with full confidence. That was all her.”
Episode 2: Cheesesteaks from Coco’s
Coco’s is the spot for cheesesteaks, McCarthy explains, while La Spada’s is where you go for hoagies (more on the latter shortly). Both businesses are in Aston. “So much of why the show has so many layers and feels so real and familiar and full of detail is because Brad is from the region,” she says. So with that said, when a character says a given sandwich is from a given purveyor, you can be certain the prop is from there, too. “Yes, I sent people to those places. We worked with those places and bought cheesesteaks from there and bought hoagies from there,” McCarthy says. “I never ate one — I’m just feeling a pang of regret. I need to go back and have one myself.”
Duck-liver hors d’oeuvre (and the couch cushions that followed)
In sharp contrast to Mare wolfing down cheesesteak in her own kitchen, later that same episode, she begrudgingly accepts an invitation to her recent sex partner Richard’s book party. (This is also the first time we see Mare attempt whatever her version of “glamour” would be and — surprise! — she looks a lot like the beautiful actress Kate Winslet.) She’s clearly uncomfortable at the party, as she sits alone off to the side. When a waiter comes by and extends a duck-liver hors d’oeuvres, she accepts, placing the amuse-bouche into her mouth. It is, let’s say, incompatible with her palate, so she spits it out before slyly (?) sliding the chewed up appetizer into a couch cushion.
“Well first of all, was that amazing?” McCarthy says. “It was a beautiful hors d’oeuvre, all custom-made. We made everything beautiful so it would be luxurious and high-end for this beautiful party — and then she spits it into a napkin and shoves it in a couch? It was so Mare. The props in the hands of an amazing actress, they will give you a different layer of who she is.”
McCarthy had been on-hand for the scene’s rehearsal but left before shooting, so she only saw the moment for the first time when the episode aired. “I roared. I laughed so hard and my heart was so happy,” she adds. And though it was played for laughs, it was also a telling glimpse into what kind of life Mare lives. “[It showed] how she was uncomfortable in that setting,” says McCarthy. “She didn’t want to be there, she didn’t want to be out on this date. And that just shows how often she doesn’t get out, because you shouldn’t shove food in a couch! But maybe she didn’t know that.”
The gas-station sandwich, dressed in shards of glass
At the end of the episode, having fled that stuffy, duck liver–peddling party, Mare, starving, stops at a gas station and picks up a more suitable dinner: a hefty hoagie. But as she’s checking out, she is also being stalked by the father of Brianna Delrasso (Mackenzie Lansing), whom Mare arrested earlier in the episode for having assaulted Erin on-camera. Mare makes it home, plops down on the couch, and prepares to, finally, eat a damn sandwich in peace. And then a jug of milk flies through her window, courtesy of Mr. Delrasso, sending shards of glass flying; through the room, into Mare’s hair and, most distressingly, onto the sandwich.
“Obviously it wasn’t literal glass. It was candy glass we made so that it could be crushed into the sandwich, and if she missed any, she could eat it safely,” McCarthy says. Because, to be clear, this does not stop Mare from enjoying her meal. “She’s just looking for five minutes of peace and she’s not gonna let him mess with her dinner,” McCarthy continues. “She shakes off the glass, pulls it out of her hair, and she’s gonna eat it anyway. Because she’s Mare. And the custody papers are obviously on that table, too, so there’s other things going on. That was a very fun scene that was, again, the props telling a lot about Mare and a different layer of her story with food.”
Episode 4: Helen’s hidden ice cream
Given that she’s Mare, ya know, of Easttown, much of the show’s edible focus is on our titular sad detective. But storytelling through food extends to other Easttown inhabitants, too; specifically, Mare’s mother Helen, who begrudgingly moved in with her daughter after Mare’s ex-husband moved out. Suffice to say, it isn’t exactly how Helen predicted she’d live out her golden years. But when we see her withdraw an unappealing bag of vegetables from the freezer, only to reveal itself as a cover-up for a pint of ice cream, we realize just how little she has for herself.
“Again, it’s food telling the story that so little in Helen’s life is for Helen,” McCarthy says. “I can relate, when you just want to have some chocolate and you don’t want to have to share it with anyone.” McCarthy also points out that Helen stores her chocolate sauce under the kitchen sink, alongside the cleaning supplies. And even as she’s about to enjoy her ice cream, she’s interrupted by someone at the damn door. “She couldn’t even eat it!,” McCarthy says. “All she wanted was the ice cream.”
(See also: Helen drinking her great-grandson’s Juicy Juice juice box at the park. “Just like she has to hide her ice cream,” says McCarthy, “now she’s drinking her great-grandson’s juice box.”)
Mare’s potato-chip bedside manor
Speaking of Helen, thanks to a reckless teen’s slamming the door into her actual face, she is taken to the hospital for a possible concussion. Safely back home, Mare goes into her bedroom to check on her, peering over her bedside as she moves her hand methodically from a bag of potato chips to her mouth. When Helen tells her she feels no worse than she usually does, Mare responds through a mouthful of greasy bites, “Good enough for me.”
“If you were checking on your very concussed mother and you were shoving potato chips into your mouth while you’re trying to make sure she was still breathing …,” McCarthy says. “It was an amazing use of food for us to understand Mare emotionally in that moment.”
The potato chips themselves are Herr’s, a local Pennsylvania brand, specifically Lancaster. And the set of Mare’s house always had them on deck. “We just kept everything stocked all the time so [the actors] could impromptu take out whatever they wanted in any scene to use as a storytelling element,” McCarthy says. “I was watching one episode yesterday, I’m not sure which one it was, but there was pizza on the table and there were potato chips, and there were cheese balls and there was beer and my stomach just hurt. I was like, how can you eat these cheeseballs and potato chips and drink beer while you’re eating pizza? I’m like, Mare can do it!”
Episode 5: The “daring” zucchini
As we arrive to the miniseries’s “third act,” so to speak, Mare is once again taken out of her edible element, when she accepts an offer to go out on a date with her one-time partner, Detective Colin Zabel (Evan Peters). As they sit across from one another, Colin is grasping at conversational straws, while Mare proceeds to give him absolutely nothing. He asks how her meal is, a “tortellini special,” and admits he was considering ordering it as well, but was scared off by the zucchini. “The zucchini obviously had to be there and the tortellini had to be there,” McCarthy says.
But unlike almost every other culinary staple that’s appeared on the series prior to this point, the carb-y dish wasn’t actually from a uniquely Pennsylvanian establishment — well, unless you consider Olive Garden uniquely Pennsylvanian. “We just went to Olive Garden and got a bunch of yummies. We got takeout,” McCarthy says of the scene, which was made more difficult to shoot as it was during the COVID era.
Episode 6: Richard’s very Mare get-well basket
When Mare is injured during a raid, her other suitor Richard drops by the house to offer well-wishes. (Again, with multiple men vying for her heart, it’s nice to see the show acknowledge that Mare does in fact look like the movie star by whom she is played.) And while some women might expect flowers or jewelry, Richard knows exactly what he’s doing when he arrives with a gift basket full of “hoagies from La Spada’s,” and Rolling Rocks of course.
“And then obviously Mare’s [first] question is, ‘Is the Rolling Rock cold?’ I don’t even think she said thank you,” McCarthy says with a laugh. The props master adds that also in the basket, though not made clear to the audience, were TastyKakes (another local company), and more Herr’s chips. “So Mare,” McCarthy says.
Every single episode: Rolling Rock. So much Rolling Rock.
If there were an official emblem of Easttown — or Easttown — it’d be a glistening green bottle of Rolling Rock. It makes an appearance in every single episode, whether the characters are at home, at a bar, or … well, those are pretty much the only places they go. “I had to go back and do a little bit of research,” McCarthy says. “Rolling Rock opened in 1939 in Pennsylvania and was known as the blue-collar, working man’s beer.”
While Rolling Rock is Mare’s beverage of choice, McCarthy also points out that some characters drink Yuengling, another local purveyor, “and it was scripted, which [characters] drank Yuengling, which characters drank Rolling Rock.” Rolling Rock has since moved its headquarters to New Jersey, but its legacy as the official beer of the Delco working man remains strong.
So, what’s actually in those bottles? Given that every actor has to pound multiple per episode, it is a safe bet they weren’t actually filled with beer or they’d all be hammered by the third take. “It’s just water and caramel coloring,” McCarthy says. “It’s pretty amazing.”