Lice--not usually known for their social graces--introduced me to author Ayun Halliday, or, technically, to her small and charming 'zine, The East Village Inky. After a virulent outbreak in my youngest daughter's kindergarten class last year, the mother of the original source (who shall now and always remain nameless--you know who you are) slipped a copy of the unexpectedly hilarious issue detailing the Halliday/Kotis family's nitpicking ordeal. I immediately subscribed.
Recipes usually were included in the last few pages of each issue, and really, it was only a matter of time before Halliday tackled food and how it all fit into her life. Her previous books--No Touch Monkey, The Big Rumpus, and Job Hopper--were funny, idiosyncratic memoirs that offered glimpses into a life lived large even when outside constraints demanded down-sizing.
Dirty Sugar Cookies (and check out her blog of the same name) is neither a cookbook nor one of the eat-and-rhapsodize paeans to culinary consumption most authors offer (you know the ones, all goose fat foam or pickled palmetto bugs or Nonna's garlic soup). Instead, Halliday details what it was like to grow up with no discernible cultural heritage or any of the rich, culinary traditions that would usually go along with belonging to a distinct ethnic group.
In other words, what it was like to grow up as a WASP.
And as a fellow WASP, I can relate. I haven't found that many references to Papagallos in pop culture or Phoebe Cates hero-worship, and I just couldn't identify with the army jackets worn by the characters of Freaks and Geeks when I watched it, even though it takes place during the same time period as my own high school years. Wrap-around skirts and alligator shirts defined my school. We listened to beach music, made brownies from a mix, and ate cream of mushroom soup casseroles. Like Halliday, I yearned for a different kind of life, and like her, college finally offered that opportunity.
As Dirty Sugar Cookies traces Halliday's trajectory from preppydom to world-traveling, boho vegetarianism and ultimately, motherhood, the young Ayun, a self-avowed picky eater, grows into a mostly omnivorous (meat-eating comes and goes), culinary adventurer who must contend with her own, finicky, opinionated food refuser. Interspersed are recipes like "Shitty Kitty Confection" and "Monkey Brain Tartare" (Ayun writes in the description, "No, I"m just shining you. It's really a recipe for those sandwiches I couldn't get enough of in Vietnam . . . "). It's a book to savor, a book to turn to when every recipe you try goes to hell in a hand basket, and a book for both current and former picky eaters and the people who love them.