“Buy organic lemons, if for no other reason than because the puckered tips make great nipples to stuff in your bra.” So goes the sometimes enlightening, sometimes just plain weird I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence (Warner Books, 2006) by comedian Amy Sedaris.
Considering Sedaris’ past work, it’s unlikely anyone was expecting a Martha Stewart-style tome on entertaining. She’s best known for the creepy character Jerri Blank (a 40-something reformed junkie and hooker who goes back to high school) from Strangers with Candy; she’s written plays with her brother David Sedaris; and she frequently appears on The Late Show with David Letterman, usually in outlandish dresses. No, Sedaris is no Stewart, nor is she a Betty Crocker — though she comes close to Julia Child’s offbeat style, minus the Cordon Bleu commendation.
What the 300-plus-page book offers is actually more entertaining in the reading than in the execution of the hosting tips. Packed with quirky drawings, color images of Sedaris in various wig-and-polyester-dress getups, hundreds of recipes (ranging from the complicated Baked Alaska to the overly simple Steamed Carrots: “Put carrots in a steamer and steam.”) and quirky commentary on the ins and outs of party planning, Sedaris’ book — if left conspicuously on the coffee table — would probably be the life of a party.
Which is why it’s just a little unnerving when the author reveals, “I didn’t want to do a joke book – I wanted the book to be useful and I took it seriously.” Keep in mind the inside of the dust jacket is a centerfold-style photo of a granny panty-clad Sedaris covered in white frosting and rainbow sprinkles.
“I also needed it to be entertaining,” she continues by e-mail. “I didn’t go out of my way to make it over the top. The book is exactly what I like. It’s me.”
The consistent ingredient
The Internet movie database (imdb.com) describes Sedaris’ character Jerri as “grotesque yet strangely endearing,” which seems an equally apt description of her meatloaf wreath. Not there’s anything wrong, per se, with the dish (it’s meatloaf baked in a ring pan) — or with any of the church bazaar and potluck dinner-approved dishes the author has compiled. It’s just that the book has a ’70s kitschy aesthetic that at first comes off as funny but soon borders on obsessive. Which is still funny, but also a little bit icky.
Under her list of munchies, Sedaris offers a mix of the sublime: “Popcorn popped in bacon grease,” “Stovetop s’mores,” “Toasted frozen waffles with ice cream between them” and the frightening: “Mozzarella sticks dipped in Cool Whip,” “Cake mix milkshake made with water,” “Powdered sugar on any kind of cheese.”
But everything about the comedian is a blend of charm and absurdity. IMDB lists “failed first grade” under trivia about the actress, who has appeared in such movies as Elf and Maid in Manhattan, and did a guest turn on Sex and the City as Carrie Bradshaw’s publisher.
Sedaris also runs a cupcake and cheese ball business out of her Manhattan apartment and sometimes moonlights as a waitress at Mary’s Fish Camp in the West Village.
“I can’t stick to one thing and I don’t want to be considered one thing other than being a girl,” the author professes. “I bring creativity to everything that I do. That’s the consistent ingredient.”
Writing a book on entertainment lines up with that philosophy. I Like You showcases Sedaris’ many talents: Cooking and creating recipes, putting to use recipes and tips she’s collected over the years, and — as each of the 25 or so photos prove — playing a variety of characters.
Think of it as a Tracey Ullman-style skit in still life. There’s the “how to look Greek” picture, the chipper yellow pantsuit picture, mother-and-daughter-matching-dresses image and one whipped-cream-covered portrait reminiscent of the Tijuana Brass Band’s vintage album cover (only Sedaris is sucking the whipped cream nozzle, whippits-style).
“I have an amazing wig collection — I have saved costumes through the years. I save everything — my whole [apartment] is a prop house,” the writer explains. “The book is for a variety of characters so it makes sense that I wrote it in a variety of character voices.”
She continues, “Everything was already in my [apartment], which is where we shot [the photos] — I save everything — I have things in there that my older sister made when she was in [third] grade. I saved swatches of the old wallpaper that was up in our downstairs bathroom when I was [eight] — I enlarged that swatch and used it for the background in the meatloaf wreath picture. All the wigs are mine, as well as the gourds and squirrels you see.”
Kitsch is a major factor in I Like You, so much so that ceramic animal figurines, primary-color wallpaper, gimmicky salt-and-pepper sets and retro tableware begin to take on an eerie normalcy, as if the book was resurrected from a 1972 time capsule. And to some extent it was, as Sedaris culls much of her inspiration from the swankier days of yore.
One throwback, for which the author is a stickler, is etiquette — though she rewrites the rules.
“Her advice is both practical and hilarious,” opines Publishers Weekly. “Her instructions on removing vomit stains ends with ‘or just toss it, chances are you’ve stained it before.'”
Sedaris also delves into inappropriate introductions, things to avoid saying to the grieving, and the delicate matter of bodily functions, “As far as bathroom etiquette goes: number 1, no number 2.”
“I don’t know what rules are out there really,” she tells Xpress. “A lot of it is common sense. It all gets down to being considerate.”
More helpful advice? “I like drugs,” Sedaris writes in the book’s “Cooking Under the Influence” chapter. “And when I say drugs, of course, I mean helpful pills that are legally prescribed by doctors … I never have drugs at my parties. I do occasionally have what I like to refer to as party enhancers.”
Substances aside, the author claims she wrote the entertaining guide, “for everyone in my family. I wanted everyone to have Mom’s recipes at hand reach. I am more of a visual person, so it was important for me to have the book be enjoyable for children and illiterate people.”
So consider it family-friendly advice for all walks of party hosts, especially those who enjoy wearing pantyhose (never fear: If you’re not acquainted with nylon stockings, Sedaris provides a step-by-step guide for shimmying into the clingy legwear). “I am determined to bring them back,” the writer vows.
Amy Sedaris offers party tips and reads from I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence at Malaprop’s on Saturday, Oct. 21. 7 p.m. Free. 254-6734.