Filed under: Food in New York
Sorry to all for my brief departure from the blogging world. However I’m back to participate in Ayun Halliday’s virtual book tour. Rather than schlepping around the globe Ayun made the wise and novel decision to enlist the help of the blogging community to promote her excellent new book,‘Dirty Sugar Cookies’.
‘Dirty Sugar Cookies’ is Ayun’s hilarious and sometimes moving food memoir that charts her personal journey from self -confessed picky eater (eschewing her mother’s gourmet delights in favour of Pop-Tarts and Grape Fanta) to bona-fide foodie.
I got the chance to catch up with Ayun, over the net, and quizzed her about her motivation for writing such a food-centric autobiography and in the process also discovered that she is an unexpected supporter of the much maligned Durian fruit.
GC: What motivated you to write a memoir that largely centres on food?
AH: I’ve had the good fortune to have Leslie Miller as editor on all four
of my self-mocking autobiographies and I knew this was a subject dear
to her heart because she’d also initiated and edited an anthology that
I contributed to called Women Who Eat. When that book rolled off the press, I was surprised and a little embarrassed that all the other authors had tackled the subject of food head on, while I concentrated on describing this great restaurant where I once worked, and what a
crappy waitress I had been. So, I guess this was my chance to redeem
Food is also more of a universal subject than some of my other passionate interests, like low-budget theater, or pirates or dressing up for the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, so there’s a chance it will appeal to a wider audience. It’s always a bonus when a smaller press publishes a book that proves evergreen. If you could publish a book about Angelina Jolie’s Cesarean section in the next five minutes, you’d find yourself with a best seller, but that thing’s shelf life would be shorter than an unrefrigerated boysenberry’s.
GC: The Betty Crocker cookbook features heavily in your childhood, do you still prepare recipes from it?
AH: Oh HELL no! I thought maybe I’d make the Bunny Salad for my kids, but before I could, we ran out of fresh produce, so in desperation, I
cracked open the canned pears I had bought for this purpose. The kids
were like, “No offense, but is it okay if we don’t finish these things?
We tried a bite.” I was kind of pissed, because canned pears had been
one of the few things I did like as a child, but I have to admit, it was a labor saved.
GC: Do you think that your mother’s appreciation for gourmet food rubbed off on you in any way despite being a self-confessed fussy eater as a child and ultimately refusing to eat most of what she cooked?
AH: Most definitely. Even when I didn’t like to eat, I liked to pretend
that I was cooking. My grandmother and I used to take colored pencils
to the inside of oyster shells, which we would then line up on a patio bench as if they were the items on display at a cafeteria. And I also had this book called Mud Pies and Other Recipes: A Cookbook For Dolls, with these totally compelling, pen and ink drawings of stuffed bears and these creepy looking dolls dining on sawdust and leaves. I remember once, I went outside to play on this raw, early spring day and my mother’s only condition was that I not turn on the hose, but of course I turned on the hose, because of course, that was a requirement of the recipe.
GC: In the book you describe an incident that inspired such wrath that you considered ramming a doll down your friend Darla’s throat as a result of eyeing up her Enchanted Castle birthday cake. Is food envy a condition that still afflicts you?
AH: Well, with Darla, it wasn’t so much food envy, as material envy. To my eyes, that elaborate, much fantasized about cake was just one more fancy thing that she had done nothing to deserve, but had been given all the same. Sometimes I feel that way when I go to some celebrated restaurant that I’ve heard about for years, and it’s full of people who
think nothing of eating there every day and totally take it for granted and order $20 dollar entrees for their two-year-olds. My husband used to have a very lowly job scouting locations for a popular television show that shoots in New York, and every day, the director and the
producers and the location manager would expense account these incredible meals. Every once in a great while, Greg would do something to distinguish himself in some wow-you-really-saved-our-asses-this-time way, and they would reward him by inviting him to join them for lunch. After which I would pump him for every single detail. What did you order? What did everybody else order? Did you get dessert? Did everybody get dessert?
GC: Do you still pine for pop-tarts and grape Fanta or do you think your palate has become more refined after living in New York and extensive traveling?
AH: I’ve branched out, but every now and then, I have an unindulged
hankering for a cinnamon frosted Pop-Tart. Once I bought my kids a
health food store version - unfrosted of course. They hated them, as
did I, but that didn’t stop me from eating the whole box. Wouldn’t want
to see food go to waste, not if I paid for it, anyway.
GC: I was interested to see a mention of the dreaded durian in your memoirs. I sampled it for the first time on a trip to Malaysia last year and actually rather enjoyed it. However my husband retches at the sight and more specifically the smell of it despite being from Asian descent. Why do you think this fruit inspires so much mixed opinion?
AH: Possibly because it smells like a soiled diaper? Its legend definitely
precedes it, as far as traveling Westerners are concerned. The first I
heard of it was when I was reading Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a
shoe-string guidebook in preparation for a trip I made in 1989. The
editors noted that Singapore’s elegant Raffles Hotel had banned durian
from its the lobby, it’s odor was so offensive. I should add that the
Raffles did not permit hairy, Birkenstocked backpackers like me in
their lobby, either. I actually wrote about the moment where I got to taste some in Job Hopper - I think it tastes like sweetened cream cheese! I love it! But I’ve never felt compelled to haul one home from Chinatown.
GC: What is the most unusual dish you have ever consumed and did you ultimately enjoy it?
AH: Good lord, that’s a good question, but I’m not sure I can supply a
definitive answer. Once I inadvertently ordered a bowl of offal in Nha
Trang. The menu was a little vague. Not wanting to give offense, I ate
it all. The cook had served it in some sort of lemongrass broth. It
wasn’t awful (rimshot!) but I probably would have preferred it, had it
been prepared by a four-star French chef in Paris in 1942, when
hardship dictated that nothing be wasted.
GC: As a convert to vegetarianism do you ever secretly hanker after meat?
AH: No, just butcher’s refuse. Of course, I do, and not so secretly,
either. It’s the way most meat is raised and slaughtered in our country
that I object to, not the taste!
GC: Do you hope eventually that your daughter, once freed from the
shackles of picky eating syndrome, will share your culinary
AH: It’s what I’m wishing for, if I ever manage to get the damn genie out of this lamp.
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