Freaking Out Squares

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Pour Some Sugar On Me

Oh, man, it's been a dog's age. Where to begin?

Well, let's start with employment. About three weeks ago, I began a real job--the exact nature of which I will not divulge, but it's not prostitution or drug dealing. Sorry to disappoint. In the middle of all this, I've been trying to finish copy editing a waaaay overdue manuscript, which I finally completed this week, and I didn't check email for three weeks. My publisher called to find out where the hell I was and was far, far nicer to me about my dropping off the face of the earth than I would be in her shoes. Hell, I'd string me up by my feet and baste me in fire ants and honey. Oh, wait, that's the torture I'd reserve for 95% of the Bush administration. I should, perhaps, be kinder to myself. Anyway, while things have worked out thus far, I wouldn't advise trying this at home. Kids: If you tell your boss you're going to return a manuscript to her by a certain date, then do it. If you can't make the deadline, let her know. Don't be a dick like me!

I'm also trying to finish a stuffed animal for a friend's birthday. Since BUST ran a recipe for stuffed animals made from socks in their December 2004 issue, I've gained a reputation as the stuffed animal lady, and I promised said friend a good, long while ago that I would make her a Jewish panda. And how does one make a Jewish panda? A few snips and a bar mitzvah, and voila! Hee. Seriously, it's a panda wearing a yarmulke and a tallis. I guess he's a Conservative Jewish panda. My friend nixed the Hassid idea, although that would be kinda fun. If you'd like a Hassidic panda, let me know!

Oh, yes, and I've taken up drawing again, after years of swallowing the line that I couldn't draw. Props to me when I proved my sixth grade art teacher wrong two nights ago when I cranked out a pretty damn fine picture of a howler monkey! (You know those evil little Nazi beasts in Raiders of the Lost Ark? Those are howler monkeys.) I'm trying to upload it onto my creaky, six-year-old computer, and as soon as that happens, I'll post it. Just don't go printing it out and claiming you did it, like Susan with the boing-boing curls did with the paper bag owl in Ramona the Brave. I won't scrunch it up, like Ramona did, but still, that's just not nice. Or ethical.

But of course the biggest event, and lapse on my part, to occur within the past month or so is the publication of Ayun Halliday's new book, Dirty Sugar Cookies: Culinary Observations, Questionable Taste. As soon as I had a few cents to my name, I was on Powell's snagging my own copy. Read the thing in an afternoon and was immediately online, furiously emailing words o'love to the author, who responded not ninety minutes later with words of love for my words of love! Sigh. So where did I go wrong? Well, I kinda sorta said I'd post a glowing review on this here site, and I kinda sorta failed miserably at that. Had a summer cold, plus the aforementioned obstacles, and the fact that I still don't have DSL, so posting is a precarious enterprise. Kitschen Table's IT department has been stricken with a strange condition engendered by the consumption of clyndamicin, an antibiotic given to him following a tooth extraction. Word of warning: Unless you're suffering from a raging infection that will lead to gangrene if you don't irrigate it with antibiotics, posthaste, do not take clyndamicin. Clyndamicin is so potent, it will kill all the "good" bacteria in your intestines, which regulate the presence of the bad, which I guess it's not potent enough to kill, and the result will leave you stranded in Pennsylvania, unable to sit more than five feet from a bathroom. So if your dentist offers you clyndamicin after yanking a tooth out, tell Marathon Man to piss up a rope and give you Cipro. (Or penicillin, if you're not allergic to it, as both the IT department and I are.)

Anyway, without further ado, I give you my review of Ayun Halliday's Dirty Sugar Cookies. (By the way, if you're wondering why I haven't given more detail about the who, what, and wherefore of Ms. Halliday, check out the post entitled "Periods! Prisons! Periodicals! Posts!" down the page a bit. Oh, yes, and click here for Ayun's food blog.)

So thank god for Ayun Halliday, whose "self-mocking autobiographies" and 'zine, The East Village Inky, have finally offered yours truly the female role model she's been so desperately seeking since she was, like, six. Those of you familiar with Ms. Halliday know about her artsy-fartsy, hippie-dippie, scrounging-for-change-under-the-couch days with the Chicago theater company The Neofuturists, her shoestring travel adventures throughout Southeast Asia with a succession of boyfriends, including her husband, Greg Kotis (the fellow who wrote Urinetown: The Musical), and cosleeping and breastfeeding her kids, India "Inky" and Milo Kotis. With her down-to-earth, smart-ass humor and her unabashed willingness to depict herself, when necessary, as a bit of an arse (in a good way), Ms. Halliday's writing manages to achieve the neat trick of being simultaneously self-assured and just as clueless as the next person, with the added fiat that she's not afraid to recount, in detail, the matter of her "ravaged bowels." (See her second book, No Touch Monkey! And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late for this, uh, in-depth account of suffering malaria in Africa, not to mention the picture of the howler monkey on the cover, which afforded me my magnum opus.)

Fortunately, save a chapter on Ms. Halliday's experience with listeria while pregnant with Milo, Dirty Sugar Cookies: Culinary Observations, Questionable Taste, is free of scatalogical remembrances. A self-described "picky eater" for most of her childhood, Ms. Halliday's fourth book is a--dare I say it? Yes, I'm afraid so--mouthwatering journey through the mushroom soup and canned spinach of her 1970s Indiana youth, to her Enchanted Broccoli Forest college years, to her attempts to spoon-feed ginger-steamed tilapia and roasted cauliflower to eight-year-old Inky, who proves that old saw about the apple and the tree, in spades. (I have to confess a great deal of empathy for Inky and the five-year-old version of Ms. Halliday. At that age, I wouldn't touch fish unless it was deep-fried in beer batter and smothered in ketchup. As I speed toward thirty, I'm forever imploring my dad to give up "fish squares," those wretched, bottom-feeder numbers that McDonald's likes to slap on a bun and call lunch. "I like them!" my dad insists. "I grew up in the '50's! This is what we ate!" True, that--I've got a copy of Look magazine from 1954, which features a recipe for barbecued franks and noodles casserole. There's enough sugar in that thing to keep Cuba's economy sputtering away till the next millenium.)

Ms. Halliday is an amazingly sensual writer, able to immerse the reader in the pain and euphoria of childbirth, the claustrophobia of an East Village tenement, and the agony of a dislocated knee in the mountains of Indonesia. In Dirty Sugar Cookies, she expertly plunges the reader into the tacky, decidedly non-nutritious culinary doings of the "Let's Make A Deal" era. In "Fruit Basket Upset," a hilarious retelling of her experiences with Betty Crocker's New Boys and Girls Cookbook, Ms. Halliday captures the taste of that book's Enchanted Castle Cake and its store-bought brethren as "like Crisco by way of cough syrup." The trauma of the communal lunches at her expensive prep school is summed up in her terrified description of a lunch monitor, Mrs. Hogarth: "Like a mongoose hypnotized by a cobra's terrible majesty, I couldn't help noting that her cardigan was exactly the same shade as the limas." The moment when Ms. Halliday transforms from picky eater to omnivore at her first bite of spanikopita is a triumph for all of us--"In that moment, some synaptic circuit I would never have suspected myself capable of possessing was completed, the same circuit that would eventually lead me to embrace a panoply of strange, low-budget dishes in kerosene-lit back alleys (and, closer at hand, pierce my ears more times than was standard, adorning the holes with dangly, no-carat baubles that made more racket than the coins encircling a belly dancer's ankles)."

In keeping with her matter-of-fact, low-budget lifestyle, which she continues to maintain with aplomb in Brooklyn, Ms. Halliday includes a recipe at the end of each chapter, with dishes ranging from her mother's spinach mornay to her own stir-fried tofu with broccoli and brown rice (which, without Ms. Halliday's recipe for guidance, is not that easy to render palatable, I have to say) to her grandmother's rice custard. If you aren't a city dweller, not to worry--most of the ingredients are readily available from your regular old grocer's.

It's not that easy to construct a linear, consistent narrative based on food--well, at least, I never thought of it till I read this book--but Ayun Halliday does it, and does it well. The result is not just soft-core food porn, it's also a highly enjoyable afternoon spent with a woman you can imagine befriending and inviting over to your place for a case of beer and homemade veggie burgers, of which, Ms. Halliday informs us, "You know you're on the right track when there's roasted, salted peanuts and not a lentil in sight."


So. Go to Powells, or Amazon, and pick up your own copy, and don't forget to write a glowing customer testimonial. (Unless it's something like The Rules or some such similar dreck, I don't think it's KIND to browbeat the author. Oh, unless he happens to be a pompous ass. Then all bets are off.) And stay tuned for my account of the Baltimore HonFest, and wish our IT department a speedy recovery.

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