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Book Club Wed Sep 10 2008

October 2008 Selection: Dirty Sugar Cookies by Ayun Halliday

If you're tired of reading foodie books where the author's roast lemon-thyme chicken, creamy mashed Yukon gold potatoes and crisp steamed asparagus come out perfectly just as his or her family or date or group of witty friends sits down to an elegant, yet bohemian, perfectly set table, then Ayun Halliday's Dirty Sugar Cookies is the perfect anti-foodie book for you. Filled with culinary mishaps, battles with picky eaters and reminiscences of morning meal with past romances, Dirty Sugar Cookies is a memoir of a woman's life with a truly universal love: food.

While much food-based literature may incite jealously over perfectly planned and enjoyed meals as well as a piqued interest in whatever succulent dish is being written about, Halliday's take on food is a far more honest and relatable one. She starts by admitting that she was not always adventurous with food and, indeed, her refusal to eat the canned pears and cottage cheese she prepared for her family - "Bunny Salad" from a Betty Crocker cookbook - is met jarringly by later confessions of her love affair with mangosteens in Bangkok. However, this admission is not delivered without an acknowledgment of irony - the now adventurous, food-loving traveler has become the mother of a girl whose finicky eating habits is a match for those of her own childhood.

Perhaps one of the most powerful elements of this memoir is the fact that food has the power to stir up great memories in us all. Halliday's recounts of eating dinner out with her grandparents at the cafeteria by their house will surely mesh with readers' memories of meals with their own grandparents. The brownies she baked with her school friends served as a ritual that kept them together and, when other girls were discovering alcohol, their hand-packed picnics were a failed attempt to catch the boys of their own desires. Halliday's foray into vegetarianism is filled with laughingly reported failures, from the lentil burgers that were never solid enough to form into patties to the suspicious pots of unidentifiable leftover brown stews and soups that filled her refrigerator for weeks. Her relationships are remembered by the shared breakfasts at greasy local diners where a true shot to the heart is seeing your ex bring a new fling to the site of your "postcoital breakfasts." For Halliday, food is not just what keeps you living - it's what's worth living for.

No foodie book would be complete without a few recipes sprinkled in for authenticity and Halliday does not disappoint. From veggie burgers (thankfully not the lentil ones that failed her so miserably) to watermelon with basil and feta to the eponymous dirty sugar cookies, Halliday's recipes are easy to follow and offer the same wit with which she peppers all of her writing: "Better taste some to make sure nobody poisoned it," she says of her friend's famous brownie batter; and "Stir the wet into the dry. Get your mind out of the gutter," she directs in her recipe for Postcoital Pancakes. A fun, touching and wholly absorbing read, Dirty Sugar Cookies is a perfectly mixed combination of food and memoir writing, leaving the reader wishing for just one more morsel to savor.

* * *

Ayun Halliday was born in Indiana, attended Northwestern University and was a member of the Neo-Futurists. She is the author of her own zine, The East Village Inky, a columnist for Bust magazine, and is the author of three additional books: The Big Rumpus, No Touch Monkey! and Job Hopper. She and her family currently live in New York. You can visit her food blog here.

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