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Ayun Halliday
Talking with the author of Dirty Sugar Cookies.
Monday Sep 11, 2006.     By Michael Nagrant
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

Ayun Halliday
Ayun Halliday—former Chicagoan and alum of the Neo-Futurist theater ensemble and now a transplanted wry, hip New York City mama—has penned the self-deprecating comedic food memoir Dirty Sugar Cookies. Halliday is a passionate, adventurous eater and avid home cook. As a devoted amateur, she avoids the typical conceits, the "been there done that" declarations of professional food critics.

Halliday wrote short plays as a Neo-Futurist, and her theater background gives her an ear for realistic dialogue. Whether she's parrying with her travel partner in Thailand or re-creating elementary school lunch conversations, the exchanges ring true.

Halliday's former life in Chicago shines with descriptions of "morning after breakfasts" luxuriating over bi bim bop at defunct Chicago restaurant Rocky's Luncheonette, where the culinary afterglow enhances the sexual one, and she nimbly compares Taste of Chicago to eating from a food stall in India. Adventurous and picky eaters alike will enjoy the read.

Tell us a little bit about your latest work?
The subtitle sums it up pretty well: "Culinary Observations, Questionable Taste." It's also the tale of how I went from a repressed picky eater growing up in mid-1970s Indiana to an adventurous, omnivorous-in-a-semi-vegetarian-sort-of-way urban chowhound.

Tell us about your creative process.
I drop my kids off at school and then I've got six hours to scat or get off the pot. I'm lucky in that all four of my books have been edited by Leslie Miller, who while not interested in sanding my ragged edges off for mainstream consumption, manages somehow to give my meandering tales a coherent final shape. If she suggests pruning three pages down to a single sentence, I hold my nose and plunge.

What do you like to do when you're not writing?
Eat dry cereal by the handful? Oh, wait, that's what I do while I am writing. When not writing, I like to read, go to movies by myself, dance around to gypsy circus music, and poke around in Chinatown.

Best Chicago food memory?
Not long after a six-month trip through Asia, I discovered that one could procure Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches from Ba Le French Bakery & Restaurant, just a short bike ride from my house. And they were cheap! Not as cheap as in Saigon, but still less than a quart of milk. Plus, the Thai Grocery next door stocked Green Parrot Toilet Soap!

Got any favorite local hangouts?
HELL yeah! Whenever I read at Quimby's, I try to work in at least one meal at Penny's Noodle Shop. I can barely recognize Andersonville these days, but it's always a pleasure to reconnect with some of my old favorites there: Angel's, Kopi Cafe, the Middle Eastern Bakery and of course, the Hopleaf. The last time I was in town, promoting my book, Job Hopper, I made a pilgrimage to Dave's Italian Kitchen in Evanston. I used to wait tables there when it was in its old location by the Davis L.

Who else should we be reading?
I went on a Jonathan Ames kick this summer, and in the comics department, I'm a big James Kochalka fan. The latest book to blow my mind is Feed, which I stumbled upon in the young adult section. Food-wise, I love Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, whose cookbooks function as beautifully illustrated travelogues, and also call for copious amounts of fish sauce, one of my favorite ingredients. Oh, and speaking of travelogues, The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel is completely galvanizing!

Ayun will be reading at Barnes and Noble 1441 W. Webster on September 19 at 7:30 and at Quimby's 1854 W. North Ave on September 20th at 7 p.m..