The Joy of Kooky Cooking
Amy Sedaris’ tongue-in-cheek (and surprisingly helpful) guide to entertaining.
By Eva Geertz
You can find any excuse to entertain. This past summer, for example, my husband and I threw a party to celebrate my becoming unemployed. But the official entertaining season is upon us now, and it’s far less fun than a barrel of pink slips. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s—that time of the year when people start tramping through your house, eating your food, scaring the cat, sitting on the dog, and vomiting in undesirable places.
I’m no Barefoot Contessa, but I can hold my own when it comes to entertaining. I have tried-and-true recipes for our shindigs. I haul out the high-octane bourbon punch recipe slipped to us by a church organist from Pittsburgh. I make vats of pimiento cheese, which people basically eat using shovels. I can make chili for 40, macaroni and cheese for 300, and I can even produce vegan snacks without cringing.
I have a large collection of cookbooks and entertaining guides which I sometimes peruse when party-planning. This is almost always a waste of time. I am not likely to try anything new at a party. But I was recently intrigued enough to buy an unusual culinary volume. Amy Sedaris, the comedienne, has put together her own entertaining guide, “I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence.” My copy arrived just in time for the first family Thanksgiving dinner my husband and I will be hosting.
I had to learn how to stuff a turkey, roast it, and feed it to people without giving everyone food poisoning. I talked it over with my husband and we decided that the thing to do was to stage “practice” Thanksgiving dinners. So far, we’ve prepared two Thanksgiving dinners in their entirety, for a crowd of willing guinea pigs. Lots of people ate; no one got sick; everyone had a good time.
In order to psych myself up for the practice meals, I read Amy Sedaris’ book. By the time I got to the cover, I was already reassured. There’s Amy wearing a full-skirted frock and chiffon apron. But while the images are campy, the text is surprisingly… serious. Not in tone, but in its content. It kind of sneaks up on you. The intro is as funny as you’d expect, but then the author throws in bits that are actually, like, useful. She reminds you to send an invitation that tells all the vital stats (date, time, and location of party), which doesn’t sound so impressive but you’d be surprised how people forget to tell you the important stuff. She gives you a page of sample invitations, all neatly handwritten, and comments on each one. The worst invitation reads: “Please come to our yard party and our neighbor’s house out in the country on Sunday the 18th. They’re out of town, so be discreet. It’s easy to get here from there, expect about an hour to sixty minutes travel. You can take the five train, which leaves at 4:07, or you can the Morehead bus which leaves at 5:08. Or you can rent a car but don’t forget the time change. Bring a prepared ice cream dessert.”
Sedaris says: “This invitation would make a good dustpan.”
On keeping drinks cold: Sedaris points out that ice for the punch bowl is best made in a tube pan, rather than using ice cubes. Less dilution that way. Some of the helpful hints are a little more eccentric, but they’re not necessarily bad ideas. Really. For example, in the chapter on entertaining for the grieving, Sedaris suggests having a “wide assortment of alcohol on hand. Drinking kills feelings. Make sure you crack the seal on all the liquor bottles ahead of time because mourners don’t want to feel inhibited about diving in.”
The etiquette aspect of the book is sort of like if Peg Bracken (author of “I Try to Behave Myself” and “The I Hate to Cook Book”) had taken drugs over the years, gone through a weird post-modern thing and come out the other side. Take Sedaris’ tips to women on blind dating: “Don’t ask where he went to high school; maybe he didn’t. Don’t ask what his father does; maybe he was murdered. Don’t tell everything about yourself; save it for your gynecologist. Don’t answer the door in a wedding dress and veil; he might not think you’re joking.”
And consider this doozy of an observation: “Guys don’t like skimpy meals, salads, lamb chops with handles, hot fruit. Guys like meat, extra portions, pies, gravy, toothpicks, and pussy.”
Where Sedaris may genuinely confound her audience is in her recipes. It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone who bought this book actually planned to cook out of it. I figured that Sedaris’ demographic is either too cool to cook, too busy to cook, or both. But the fact is that most people who read “I Like You” will probably ignore the recipes; in this era of ritzy food fashion, they’re just plain out of date. With few exceptions, I could probably find most of these creations in my copy of the 1960 classic, “Woman’s Day Collector’s Cook Book,” or in an old “Joy of Cooking.” Some come off as a little church-suppery. There’s a hot dog recipe with variations. And what’s the deal with all the cheese balls? Come on—do you know anyone who really makes cheese balls?
Is “I Like You” a joke or not? I kept thinking, “How many people would really entertain this way? In 2006? Ever?” Or, is it tongue in cheek, but meant to be useful? Whatever its intention, though, the book is a success, because it is so uniquely Amy Sedaris. It’s one of those cookbooks that can make it on style alone—a vivid, strikingly composed, entertaining guide to entertaining that, if nothing else, will make you laugh all the way to the hot dog aisle.
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Eva Geertz's last review for SoMA was Illuminating Letters.
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