For those of you not familiar with Ayun Halliday, let me say this – Ayun is the type of person to which a person gladly gives gives up a floor/ spotlight/ microphone, because her stories are that much more entertaining than everyone elses. When I think of her writing, I picture her telling her these anecdotes over an entree at the local Thai restaurant, or perhaps over drinks at one of those pubs that have a maximum occupancy of 18 people.
Which is why it seems so right that she has written her own food memoirs called Dirty Sugar Cookies, along the lines of Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone. No…scratch that. This book is the antithesis of Ruth Reichl, where Ayun discusses both the joys of Pop Tarts and the post-coital breakfast….with recipes.
I had a chance to interview over e-mail Ayun as she does her first “Blog Publicity Tour”. It was an opportunity I was glad to take, and I hope you get to know her better as well.
What was the inspiration to write a book about food?
I like to hitch my autobiographical wagons to universal, evergreen subjects (ie. early parenthood, travel, crummy jobs). Like, I’d love to write a book about my favorite scenes in obscure movies, the most memorable moments I’ve witnessed in live theater, but I don’t think there’d be much of a market, so instead I bore my friends with constant references to this Japanese production of MacBeth where the king’s attendants used fans to fill the air with swirling cherry blossoms as he’s murdered. Food is more accessible. We all eat and many of us spend a lot of time thinking about food in a very pleasurable way.
The early part of your book deals with many of the pop-culture foods that many of us remember. What is it about Pop-Tarts and Count Chocula’s that bring back such nostalgia?
I was a hopelessly picky eater & only child, and my situation was compounded by the fact that my mother really loved to cook, not just spaghetti and burgers and standard 70′s family fare, but these elaborate, involved meals. Junk food wasn’t forbidden, per say, we just didn’t have too much of it on hand. I was too shy and powerless to request more than one such item per shopping trip. That probably explains why I cleaved extra hard to the pop-culture-ish food my mother did stock, mostly things she herself liked, like Oreos, Doo Dads and these puffed cheese curls we referred to as “cornies”, though it’s debatable whether that was the actual brand name.
Fortunately, one thing she never insisted on was a hot breakfast, so I was able to participate in the zeitgeist via the cereals I saw advertised on Saturday morning cartoons. I believed that somewhere there was really this wonderful clubhouse of autonomous, grooved-out Honeycomb Kids who never had to deal with their mothers’s Beef Stroganoff. Unfortunately, I never located this Xanadu, but I do have many fond memories of sneaking downstairs on Saturday mornings, turning on the TV, grabbing a spoon and helping myself to half a box of unreconstituted Nestles Quik.
In thirty years, do you think that the kids of today will look upon any of the foods available today with the same fondness our generation has with say, Peanut Butter Crunch or McDonald’s?
Most definitely. There are plenty of old timers in my neighborhood who wax nostalgic for Fox’s U-Bet Syrup and Ebinger’s Black Out Cake, items which are as regional as they are obsolete. I hope regionalism doesn’t die out entirely. Actually, I guess these childhood food memories are always regional, even if they involve a national brand. It’s not just Dairy Queen, it’s a particular Dairy Queen, and wearing your bathing suit under your shorts, and the fireflies out back, and the fact that your grandfather always ordered Dilly Bars while your mother always ordered hot fudge sundaes…
Have any of your childhood food phobias carried over into adulthood?
I’m almost completely reformed, but I doubt I’ll ever be able to handle banana pudding. (I don’t want to give away why, because it’s one of my favorite parts of the book.)
I’ve come to appreciate my mother’s culinary gifts, but she has this one soup that puts me in a really bitchy mood, I hate it so much and of course, that’s the one that’s her precious baby. Every time she says its name â?? oxtail warmer – she unconsciously switches to this simpering Shirley Temple voice and gives her shoulders a little shimmy, as if to indicate how delicious it is. Drives me absolutely bat shit.
As a seasoned traveler, you’ve dealt with confronting different cultures and their approaches to food. Is there a moment that even you had to go “Okay, this is too odd up even for me, where’s the local Long John Silvers?”
No, that would be my former traveling companions / ex-boyfriends, though your Long John’s reference reminds me of how fun it used to be to wander around Indianapolis with my high school friends, wearing those cardboard pirate hats they give away free to little kids. That was about as punk rock as it got.
But back to traveling, no, I’ve never hit that tantrum point where I require air conditioning, molded plastic seats and pre-fabricated Western food. Though, I do remember treating ourselves to this restaurant in Calcutta that was a dead ringer for a Jo Jo’s, the Hoosier equivalent of a Denny’s or a Friendly’s. It had the laminated menu with pictures of ice cream sundaes, the doofy uniforms, everything. After two months in India, that place was delightful in the way no Jo Jo’s, Friendly’s or Denny’s could ever be for me on American soil. It was such a novelty to partake of individually wrapped butter pats, fountain sodas and a salad bar. The other great thing about it was that it was clearly a hot gathering spot for young Calcutta professionals on the move.
Do you think Americans generally avoid taking food risks when traveling?
Oh, hell yes! I think most Americans avoid taking food risks at Taste of Chicago! I have at times paid the price for risky culinary behavior abroad (I shan’t go into detail regarding the currency with which I settled those bills) but I stand by the spirit in which those mistakes were made.
Having worked in lots of American restaurants, I’m doubly bummed by the timidity with which so many of my countrymen and women approach foreign cuisine in foreign lands. Perhaps those folks should take a backstage tour of their favorite restaurant before leaving home, find out how their beloved food is really stored and handled. I suspect it would lessen their fear of eating at a street stall (either that or they’d never eat outside their homes again).
At the same time, we Americans tend to make some pretty freaky foods, some of which you mention when you talk about “Betty Crocker’s New Boys and Girls Cookbook”. Do you think any current food fads parallel Meatloaf A la Mode, or Seven-Up Salad?
It seems like we’ve moved away from that for the time being, though I trust magazines like Family Circle and Ladies Home Journal to see to it that the dream doesn’t die entirely.
I’ve got zero desire to eat in fast food chains, and our t.v. reception is so crappy that I’m not privy to their commercials, but that’s another arena where regrettable food can continue to flourish. There’s always something new to be wrapped in bacon, encased in dough, deep fried, dunked in sauce and given a funny name.
What is your approach to your daughter Inky’s finicky eating habits?
I’ve run out of approaches. Hurry up and wait, I guess. Try to keep Bitchmother at bay.
Is there hope for her palate yet?
I cling to the fact that I was a picky eater once myself. Of course, my mother refrained from saying so in her published oeuvre. If Inky stays finicky, it’s probably a case of karmic retribution.
If you could get her to eat just one food, what would it be?
Is your preference to cook at home, or go out to eat?
Go out to eat, then come home and crack into the leftovers from last night’s home cooked meal while watching Arrested Development.
What would you consider the perfect meal?
You mean like, if I was bound for the electric chair the next day? Uh… A banh mi from a cart in Saigon (and given the circumstances, don’t hold the meat), several mangosteens, a couple of eel avocado rolls, half a six pack of India pale ale, chocolate pear gelato from Fairway and a ladyfinger containing the key to my cell.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to expand their food knowledge?
Travel to another country vastly different than your own, go to the market, eat in the street stalls, eat every fruit you can’t get at home, point at what the toothless old man in the corner is eating so that the waiter will bring you that. If this is financially impossible, get yourself to Chinatown. (If you were born and bred in Chinatown, head to the nearest Bob Evans.)