Ayun Halliday’s Foodie Memoir Pet Peeves

Ayun Halliday kicks off a month-long “Virtual Blog Tour” for her new book, Dirty Sugar Cookies, a compendium of “culinary observations [and] questionable taste,” by talking about some of the things that drive her nuts in other people’s food books. I’m thrilled that Ayun asked if she could start her tour here, and I hope you’ll follow her through her itinerary and keep track of her further gustatory antics on her very own blog.

ayun-halliday.jpgThe autobiographical genre holds a lot of appeal for me, as both a writer and a reader. I often find myself wishing I could erase or reword something in one of my books, but that’s nothing compared to the intense desire to start ripping pages of other people’s books whenever I come across one of my memoir-related pet peeves. Like autobiographies themselves, these gripes are easily divisible for the sake of sub-categorization. For instance, is it not time for a moratorium on “quiet awe” as an acceptable response to one’s first viewing of the Taj Mahal? Adjectives like “poopy”, “yummy” and “soccer” are words for parents and authors who write about their experiences as parents to rage against, not embrace (and while we’re at it, let’s pillory the idiot who coined the term “momoir.” ) As far as culinary reminiscences go, now that I’m a food memoirist myself, my plate’s heaped high with bones to pick:

Exquisite, Miniscule Portions Glistening Like Jewels: This kind of twee description makes me want to storm the Bastille. Unless the author has demonstrated an equal willingness to hork down a heaping helping from a fly-specked, outer-borough street stall, I refuse to stomach such fawning over a $23 appetizer. I’ll take the phrase “glinted malevolently” over “glistened like jewels” any day!

The Picturesque Old Lady Who Presses Her Own Olive Oil: I’ve got no beef with the old lady, per se. It’s more the verbal diarrhea she inspires in the culinary pilgrims who follow her back to the tumbledown villa her family has inhabited for centuries, marveling at every cobblestone and noting the similarities between her gnarled yet capable fingers and the twisted branches in her orchard. I find myself hoping that the old lady will whip out a cell phone and start talking about how much she loves the Olive Garden. “They’ve got the best Early Bird specials and unlimited refills on breadsticks!”

Chick Lit Covers: I know it’s not really the author’s fault if her publisher decides to depict her as a wasp-waisted paper doll in tights and high heels, but sometimes pictures speak more strongly than words. Those covers make me paranoid that the only things people will pay to read about are Cosmos, shopping, commitment-phobic boyfriends, “sinful” calories and zany culinary mishaps that turn out all right in the end.

Fragrant Clouds of _________ Escaping from the Pots that Simmered on Grandma’s Stove: This is a staple of fiction, too, and any number of scents can fill in that blank: lemongrass, gumbo, carp with black bean sauce, sopa de ajo, lemon pullao, curried goat…basically anything except Crisco or Cool Whip, the pillars of my grandmother’s cuisine. I guess I’m just jealous.

Cordon Bleu-ier Than Thou Attitude: I don’t care how succulent your sweetbreads are, if you behave like my knife should be taken it away because I handle it improperly, I don’t want to play with you. I want to play with Julia Child, who managed, with the assistance of her grand-nephew Alex Prud’homme, to strike just the right balance between her first taste of Sole Meunière and an anecdote in which her less-than-fluent sister, rear-ended by a Parisian motorist, bellows something the authors helpfully translate for non-French-speaking readers as “This shit-man just spat out into my butt!”

Wide-eyed Wonder Only Cutting One Way: Like anyone who loves food enough to pen nearly 80,000 words on the subject, I’ve had episodes of culinary astonishment, but jeez, do they all have to involve something that tastes good? Paeans to crème fraiche and perfectly ripe tomatoes go down easier when leavened with the terrible awe a fluffy mackerel pudding can inspire.

A Passion for Pasta: An early draft of Dirty Sugar Cookies contained a chapter called “I Hate Pasta,” which caused my editor to comment, “Given that this book should appeal to people who like to eat, I think you need to refrain from reaching for adjectives like ‘tepid,’ ‘congealed,’ and ‘gluey’” … but, man, how can people eat that shit?

1 June 2006 | guest authors |