I think I found my epicurean soul sister.
If "epicurean" is the right word to describe us, that is. Because the word "epicurean" implies that one is well studied in the art of food and drink--that one has, according to Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, "sensitive and discriminating tastes especially in food or wine." When somebody says that someone is an epicure, thoughts of ladies and gents with eating with turned up pointy noses come to mind.
So maybe "epicurean" isn't the right word to describe my newfound (insert word pertaining to food here) soul sister Ayun Halliday, author of Dirty Sugar Cookies: Culinary Observations, Questionable Taste. To be quite honest, when Ayun first approached me and asked if I'd like to participate in a virtual book tour to promote her new book, I had no idea who she was. I never read her other books The Big Rumpus, No Touch Monkey or Job Hopper nor have I ever heard of her 'zine East Village Inky. And maybe because I hadn't, and because at that time I didn't know much about Dirty Sugar Cookies except for the fact that it was some sort of food memoir, I pictured Ayun as the stereotypical epicure...you know, the type that has serious discussions about foie gras with a group of wine snobs. But I was sooo wrong! (Please forgive me Ayun!)
Ayun knows food the way I do. We like it; hell, we adore it. But come on, let's be honest here. We didn't always like what we like, or dislike what we dislike. And we weren't all born with a silver palate, but we did have curious obsessions with those that seemed like they were. Dirty Sugar Cookies takes us along the long, sometimes awkward, but certainly humorous road to culinary self-discovery. She brings us back to her chilhood and adolescence where Pop Tarts weren't just something she scarfed down at camp, but something that fit into an almost obsessive-compulsive pattern of breakfast eating where everything, including Count Chocula and the Pop Tart, had to be placed just so. I'd pretty much pushed Seventeen Magazine deep down into the dregs of my memory until Ayun resurfaces those memories of prom fashions and lip gloss in telling us what role the beloved teenage magazine and food played in her coming of age. She tells us of post-coital breakfasts and why certain neighborhood diners were more well suited for them. We go with her to Indonesia and Thailand where she shows us why we'd never want to order an Austrailian Pizza and also about how she fell in love with (but never again could find) mangosteens.
But perhaps my favorite part of Dirty Sugar Cookies is an earlier chapter titled "Fruit Basket Upset" where Ayun reminded me of my childhood definition of good cooking. Now I'm not talking McDonalds, pizza and candy; I'm talking about those things that I identified as good eats when I first realized that cooking's a process--that it's an art. With that being said, I'm not talking about miso glazed black cod or osso buco either. When I was young, I thought the most bad-ass chefs were the ones who could make some outrageously over-the-top creation like the coveted "Enchanted Castle" cake from the Betty Crocker Boys and Girls Cookbook that Ayun so fondly remembers. It was a cake situated on a lawn of coconut shreds that were dyed green and that had ice cream cones as turrets; it was a cake that was big, gaudily ornate and colorful and which had a big fancy picture within the cookbook, luring both boys and girls in everytime they looked at it and making them think "Gee, when I grow up I'm going be a chef and make a cake just like that one!" Little did one know that the inside of that cake probably tasted like paste. Yet at that age, that cake stood for real cooking, dammit.
So, because I'm a sucker for sarcasm, I decided to recreate "Shitty Kitty Confection" from a cake recipe at the end of the chapter. Ayun calls it "a trompe l'oeil treat"--a bit wacky, I say, but I fucking love it. Imagine all the "oohs" and "aahs" Mrs. Happy Housewife would receive as she brought this out to the dinner table back in the day! Here the excerpt from Ayun's book...follow along, won't you? (And maybe make one yourself someday!)
"Prepare 1 large package of vanilla pudding mix according to package directions. Most likely this will involve milk. (You'll want to have some on hand anywayto wash down the horrifingly realistic finished product.) Stick the pudding in the fridge in a container of your choosing.
Mix 1 box of German chocolate cake mix with whatever eggs or oils it may call for, and bake according to the instructions on the side of the box in whatever pan grabs you.
(My supplies! Fortunately, everything was on sale at Albertson's.)
(Mixin' it up with Duncan Hines)
Repeat the above process with 1 box of white cake mix.
Get ready to fuck your blender up with 1 package of vanilla sandwich cookies...you know, the kind you hated as a kid because they weren't dark, like Oreos. If you're the old fashioned type, get out your rolling pin and clobber them up to crumb city that way.
(Since I have a food processor, I guess I didn't have to fuck up my blender)
If you want to get really fancy, dude up 1 cup of cookie crumbs with a few drops of green food coloring. Stir them up good and set aside.
(New and improved extra deodorizing formula!)
Once the cakes have cooled, crumble them up into your largest mixing bowl with half of the undyed cookie crumbsand enough pudding to bind it all together, without turning things too boggy.
(Mix it up good!)
Line the brand new litter box you bought at the pet supply store with one of the brand new disposable litter box liners picked up on the same trip. This is one step where it doesn't pay to skimp, no matter how fastidiously you wash dishes.
Strip the wrappers off a few small Tootsie rollsand heat them in the microwaveuntil they are as pliant as if you'd tucked them into your armpits for an hour (which you can totally do if, like me, you don't have room for a microwave in your kitchen) Now that they're warm, these little brown logs are yours for the shaping. Pay special attention to the ends, which should be tapered. Make as many of them as you'd like, but at least one per guest. Follow your muse. Just work in small batches for maximum plasticity. Bury most of the doctored Tootsies in the cake mixture.
(I showed Isaac my first turd attempt. He's had a cat before (poor Isaac) and would be able to tell me if my Tootsie turds were passable. He took it from me and said I had to make 'em smaller & more dimply. The above is what the finished product looked like. )
(Carefully inserting a Tootsie turd into the cake litter)
Over this mess, sprinkle the remaining undyed cookie crumbs. fancy types can follow this up with judiciously spaced, chlorophyll green "odor crystal"crumbs.
For good measure, plop a few more Tootsies defiantly atop the "litter"--you know, the way felines do.
(The practical side of me told me to not buy a real litter box since I will never, ever own a cat. So I used my trusty 9x13 cake pan.)
("No, no, cats don't leave all their turds on the top," Isaac advised, "you gotta bury them more." I left one sticking out just for kicks.)
Serve with a pooper scooper that, if not brand new, is at least reserved for culinary purposes such as this."
(Mmm! All nice & clumpy--just like kitty would have left it! Note that I didn't have a kitty litter scoop either, so I used the next best thing.)
It tasted kinda like...paste! But oh what fun it was!
Dirty Sugar Cookies is available for purchase now through Powells.com. Buy it. Now.