My store first discovered Ayun Halliday sometime around the release of her travel memoir No Touch Monkey. We didn’t know anything about her beyond the small blurb in the book catalogue and the fact that she had a monkey on the cover of her book, but something called to us. Perhaps it was the monkey. In any case we ordered her in and then fell in love as did our customers. We couldn’t keep No Touch Monkey on the table, people were describing her as a female Sedaris, and it was the first time I really experienced the magic of customer-born hand-selling as they came back time and again to buy copies for their friends, neighbors and business associates.
Since our success with No Touch Monkey we’ve followed Ayun’s busy career as sole creator and artist of the East Village Inky (drawn entirely by hand), Mother Superior columnist for BUST (despite not being catholic), and mother to the most well documented children on the planet. We’re such big fans that when I heard that Dirty Sugar Cookies—her essays on food, pickiness, and questionable edibles—was coming out, the Boss and I immediately ordered copies for the store. And when I got a very polite email from Ms. Halliday asking if I wanted to be part of her virtual blog tour? Well, I may have screamed a little (email’s inability to transmit this probably saved her hearing), probably gushed in my reply, and definitely lost what little was left in my mind because what do you ask a woman who dares to be a heinie?
Well, you focus on her cool marketing technique and food porn; that’s the route I took at least. Whether or not I was successful remains to be seen…
Bookseller Chick: First of all, I have to admit that I love your virtual blog tour. What made you come up with the idea and has it been successful?
Ayun Halliday: Hey, thanks! I'm in an online group with several other writer mamas, one of whom, Andi Buchanan conceived of this brilliant way to promote her anthologies (The Literary Mama, It's a Boy, and It's a Girl) to an audience whose best laid plans to attend traditional readings are often thwarted due to babysitter problems, fevers, ear aches, general crankiness and other such unscheduled woes. Doing a blog tour makes a lot of sense, too, for an author with young children and no partner, or a partner whose schedule is fairly inflexible. I do enjoy the performance aspect inherent in traditional readings – gives me a chance to dust off my Northwestern theater degree – but with Greg's new play, Pig Farm, starting previews within days of Dirty Sugar Cookies' publication, there was no way I could hit the road and leave him holding the bag at this time.
I started digging around and found out that guys who write inspirational business strategy manuals have been rocking virtual tours for years! Who knew? Possibly Andi Buchanan. She's far more tuned in than I'll ever be!
I think the Dirty Sugar Cookies Virtual Tour has been helpful in getting the word out, and as much work as it's been on my end, it's a helluva lot of fun, too. I'm enjoy the freewheeling quality of the interviews and the fact that there's this small band of hardcore Dirty Sugarheads who've signed up to get daily notification of the blog du jour. I keep thinking that when it's all over, I should make concert t-shirts with all the tour dates listed on the back.
BSC: Dirty Sugar Cookies is your hilarious journey from picky eater to epicure, but was it hard to look back on some of your culinary disasters and then write about them?
AH: I far prefer writing about them to living through them. Take the Heart Shaped Waffle Incident. It was fairly stressful and unpleasant for all of the players as it was unfolding, but there was no lasting damage, and now it's ripe for the comedic picking! The great thing about failure is that it's interesting. Have you seen Lost In La Mancha, a documentary of the near-Biblical trials that plagued the set of this movie Terry Gilliam had dreamed of making since boyhood? On a human level, his failure to realize that dream strikes me as far more compelling than the film he wanted to make.
BSC: I agree, Lost in La Mancha conveys the quixoticness of Gilliam’s search better than the actual film ever would, and I think Cervantes would have been amused by it all. Now that you are raising a picky eater of your own are there any foods that you two are in agreement on or times where she reminds you of your youthful pickiness?
AH: Oh, sure. Sometimes when the cupboard's getting a bit bare and I'm not feeling up to the task, I'll serve some lame-o vegetarian dish that leaves me feeling as unenthusiastic as she does, so much so that when Greg starts to hector her into eating half of what's on her plate, I say, "No, lay off. She's right. I don't want to finish it either."
One thing that she does, that I used to do too, is, after taking a bite of something she's really unhappy about (tilapia comes to mind), she'll chew it to a paste-like consistency that's near-impossible to swallow without gagging. I remember the Promethean misery of that.
BSC: It seems that everyone these days is fascinated by cooking, but not necessarily doing the cooking themselves (I admit that I'm all about going out vs. staying in and creating sometimes). Thanks to the Food Network (or the Food Porn channel as my family likes to call it) and reality TV we have a culture that has created the uber-chef like Tony Bourdain, Emeril, Gordon Ramsay, Giada de Laurentiis and others. What do you make of the celebu-chef phenomenon? Does it raise the standards for everyday restaurants everywhere? Do you have a cooking show in the works that we should know about?
AH: I'm sort of out of the loop because I don't have cable. So, when one of these celebu-chefs takes a drubbing on one of the food blogs I follow, I have to glean what's so objectionable about this person from the comments alone. One thing that interested me is how Anthony Bourdain, in A Cook's Tour (which I read before Kitchen Confidential), owned up to gleefully savaging Emeril in his first book for the crime of being a rather cuddly Food Network star. Then, as he tell it in A Cook's Tour, he met Emeril and Emeril struck him as this really friendly, gracious guy, as well as an excellent chef. The greater a person's fame, the greater the likelihood that they'll find themselves the constant butt of snarky jokes. So, I guess I should be glad that I'm not very television-worthy. The hairy armpits, the lack of make up, the ragged nails, the fashion disaster couture and the Pirates of the Caribbean coiffure – I'm one big Glamour Don't.
As far as whether these shows raise the standards of home chefs, they probably do. Knowledge is power. Plus, folks who, left to their own devices, wouldn’t gravitate toward a Vietnamese cookbook, might catch Anthony Bourdain tooling around a backwater market in Vietnam and think, "Hey, I could try to make that kind of stuff." It's good timing, as every ethnic or rarified ingredient save produce can now be purchased on the Internet, often on Amazon. Because you know, Customers who purchased books by Ayun Halliday, might also enjoy Angelo Pietro Sesame and Miso Salad Dressing, the only bottled dressing the author can tolerate!
BSC: Mmm, Bourdain, love that man—love him more since A Cook’s Tour—but he’s made me rethink having eggs benedict with his talk about food preparation. In Job Hopper you touched upon your time working in the restaurant business, did those experiences make you more or less likely to eat out? Did they make you more or less likely to eat certain foods?
AH: Don't know that anything could quench my impulse to eat out, but yeah, there are things I don't order. Can't do glazed strawberries.
BSC: I’m afraid to even ask why. I love strawberries much too much. In the beginning of Dirty Sugar Cookies, you talk about your mom using Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking as her bible, but do you have any cookbook that you refer to above all else?
AH: Two actually.
The first, a rather recent acquisition, is Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. It's kind of a shame because it's this beautiful coffee table book with glorious travel photographs and here I've done my usual number on it, broken the spine, stranded it on the sopping countertop, splattered it with fish sauce and oil... Apparently, I like my stuff to have that lived-in appearance.
For nearly two decades, I've relied on the Tao of Cooking by Sally Pasley. My stepbrother and his family live in Bloomington, Indiana, and his wife gave it to me for Christmas one year, because the author used to have some connection to the (now defunct) Tao Restaurant there. Susan rightly – and kindly - suspected that I would appreciate a present that acknowledged my hippie tendencies.
BSC: And since this is a bookselling blog, and I’m all about other people doing my job for me, what are a few books that you have loved (or loved lately) that you think everyone else should take a chance and read?
AH: My all-time favorite, more favorite even than The Grapes of Wrath or The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, is Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter.
I recently bought Jonathan Ames's What's Not To Love at a stoop sale, because I see him in my neighborhood all the time, and I enjoyed his novel The Extra Man, though I kind of had a bad taste in my mouth since overhearing him in a café telling an acquaintance of his how much he hates it when people recognize him and invade his privacy, though of course it was okay for her to do so since she was cute and she knew him. I didn't know him and after hearing that, thought that perhaps I didn't want to, but I tell you, he completely won me over with these personal essays. I was so sad to reach the end that I rushed out and bought his latest, I Love You More Than You Know, and it, too, is wonderful. There's a real charitableness in the way he describes people and his comic timing is just sublime.
Thanks, Ayun, for taking the time to answer my babble, and thank y’all for dropping by to check out the interview. You can find Dirty Sugar Cookies available to order here and here as well as The Big Rumpus, No Touch Monkey, and Job Hopper. You can also follow Ayun’s daily culinary triumphs and disasters at her food blog.