You grew up with Mindy Cohn, whether or not you know it. The actress may be best known for her nine-year tenure on The Facts of Life, starting in 1979, but that was just the beginning of her long career. In 2004, she stepped into the recurring role as the voice of Scooby Doo's Velma Dinkley, and in 2016 Cohn took a turn behind the stove on Food Network's Worst Cooks in America to raise cash for her favorite cause, Heifer International.
Cohn recently spoke with People magazine about her five-year fight against breast cancer and her recovery at the Beekman 1802 farm in the upstate New York town of Sharon Springs, where—full disclosure—I got to her as a sometimes-neighbor, friend, and passionate lover of food. Shortly before that interview, she and I spoke about her bicoastal acting life, charity work, and obsession with breakfast sandwiches.
Extra Crispy: Talk to me about Facts of Life. In later seasons, the show moved from a school to a bake shop. The food at Edna's Edibles looked pretty tasty. Was it real?
Mindy Cohn: When the store Edna's Edibles showed up, there was tremendously awesome, taste-thrilly, beautiful product. The problem was it was fresh the first week. We were shooting 22 episodes. It was disgusting and everything—the croissants and brioches—was hard as a brick. It really could have been plastic for all we cared about, and it probably would have been more sanitary.
Plus the name "Edna's Edibles" would mean an entirely different kind of food shop now.
Especially five women in Peekskill, New York. I mean you can only imagine what would really be going on.
You've been a working actor since you were how old?
I got discovered at Westlake School—which is this kind of uppity all girls private school in Bel Air—by Norman Lear when I was 13, started on Facts of Life, and that ended when I was 21. What was supposed to be my really fun summer holiday experience turned into nine years of my life.
Did you go to regular school?
My mom insisted that I stay at Westlake which I'm so grateful for but going through it was hell because it's a college prep school. I would go to school from 7 to 11. My granny Rose who worked for the fur department at Saks Fifth Avenue would pick me up in her fabulous Monte Carlo to drive me to the studio on her lunch hour and I would work all afternoon. Obviously tape nights were very late, and I would come home to four hours of homework. That was my high school experience.
How did you maintain any kind of a normal eating schedule?
Meals are always a touchstone for me. My parents and my sister and I had a cooked dinner every night, no matter what went on during the day. That dinner around the breakfast nook table was everything to me and we laughed, told stories, cried, worried, were anxious, and we celebrated all together over food.
When my life became hectic as a teenager, not only did I have the propensity to be an emotional eater, but God bless me I'm a foodie, so it's a two-fer. I sought out food to not only celebrate, comfort me, treat my anxiety— it hearkens back to that good feeling of being around the breakfast table. To this day the idea of cooking and feeding friends and anything important revolves around well let's do it over a meal.
It's so huge in my life in good ways and not so healthy ways. As I've gotten older, I can get the emotional eating portion under control, but it's what I do. I break bread with people.
And you do that bicoastally.
Especially in the last decade, L.A. has had such a beautiful renaissance, and even as someone who has traveled quite extensively and a diehard New Yorker, I can say that it has an amazing restaurant scene. There are some amazing taste thrills here—L.A. decided to take itself seriously as a food city which is just good news to all of us that had to travel East to get a decent meal while we were growing up. The whole farm-to-table thing makes sense for L.A., because all the farms are here in central California. We have been living like that for a really long time because of our access.
Do you do you breakfast differently depending on where you are?
Completely different. New York City breakfast revolves around something on the go. Upstate New York on the farm, obviously we have fresh eggs. We actually do a very proper job, Josh [Kilmer-Purcell of Beekman 1802] and I. Brent [Ridge, also of Beekman 1802] doesn't really eat breakfast. But for Josh and me, that's our biggest meal. We eat an incredibly light lunch if anything at all. And we have a very planned-out, amazing home-cooked dinner unless we're having friends over in which case it's even grander and bigger. When I'm here in L.A. it's it's really different. My breakfast tends to be exactly the same. I am a breakfast sandwich queen.
Tell me about this breakfast sandwich.
There's something about some fresh fruit and a breakfast sandwich. I would say six mornings out of the week that is how I'm eating. I tend to do better when I get up, have a cup of coffee and eat breakfast with a hearty breakfast. I'm better. I'm really good. Today it was half a mango and a breakfast sandwich. OK, I'm in California and I can't help it, so it was a whole wheat English muffin—screw egg whites, I'm a whole eggs chick—with a pork sausage patty and a slice of Gruyere cheese.
I mix up the meat, sometimes I don't do meat. Sometimes I mix up the cheese. Sometimes I don't do a full sandwich, I'll put it on a tortilla. I have that every morning at about 7 or 7:30 and I'm good to go. It's deliciousiosa. Very easy to make and so filling.
That sounds pretty good! But you did compete on Worst Cooks in America, sooo...
Oh good god. I swore that I would never do reality television. My little pissy line to anyone who would inquire from my agent would be "I'm an actor. I don't want to play myself on television." Cut to the Food Network, my dad's holy grail. We are obsessed with Chef Anne Burrell and when I heard she was one of the judges I didn't have to be asked twice.
Little did I know the horror of reality television. I now understand why people get paid big bucks and have a career over it. Having said that, the best thing I took away from that was learning from Chef Anne. Those hours spent watching her, I would have paid a silent auction thousands of dollars to get that opportunity..
And you earned a lot of money for Heifer International.
I don't think anybody can truly be a foodie and not think about people who don't have enough to eat. But it's not only about that. Heifer sustains people through development of resources, working with rural communities worldwide. It may be Vietnam or Arkansas, but it's empowering rural families to not only feed themselves and take care of themselves but their community as well and create a business around it.
People think of Heifer as "Oh you buy chickens or cows for Christmas gifts." That part of their fundraising campaign has been very successful. But I don't think people know about their holistic approach, building self reliance, the training that the people receive, these micro-loans or these animals—it just takes them out of extreme poverty and it puts them in a leadership position in their community. It creates independence. It keeps on giving. It helps break the cycle of poverty, It's not just a goat.
If you see what people don't have access to and then you wonder why the kids aren't really doing well at school? Breakfast is everything. If you don't have access to fresh eggs and fruit, you're screwed.