Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Pastiche vs. Parody

“This is not a joke cookbook,” says Amy Sedaris in her introductory letter, a statement immediately preceded by the wisdom: “You don’t have to be the perfect host, just the prettiest.” A couple pages later, she introduces readers to her “famous Lil’ Smoky Cheese Balls,” writing: “One can serve a cheese ball while entertaining friends on Monday, spend Tuesday perking up the ball, and then serve it to a different group of friends on Wednesday” (27). At this point, one may feel inclined to discount Sedaris’ original pretension of gravity, instead proceeding to laugh through “The Art of Hospitality” while enjoying the parody of Dorothy Draper and the generation of small-minded homemaking devotees she inspired. However, to do so would be to misinterpret I Like You; an affectionate pastiche of recipes and advice, written by an off-kilter woman with a genuine passion for the creative entertainment of herself and others.

Just as Martha Stewart might discuss best practices in catering to a variety of audiences, Sedaris too covers the differences between hosting a sophisticated brunch for lumberjacks and entertaining one’s rich and elderly family relations. However, the imitation is not derisive. The recipes are legitimate and appear as though they would, in fact, suit the respective company quite well. Moreover, they are undergirded by a desire to respect and sufficiently serve the needs of the guest. This can entail a degree of absurdity when the guest occupies a professional niche as narrow as “lumberjack” (read: “Be polite when suggesting they remove their cleats, but be prepared if they don’t” [73]), but also sincerity when the person at hand faces challenges such as grief, terminal illness, or simply old age. In entertaining the old and frail, for example, Sedaris suggests: “Elderly people have much to offer. They have years of experience stored in their brains … soon you will be in their comfort shoes, and wouldn’t it be nice to be invited to a party?” (151).

Much of what might be perceived as a mockery of those heavily invested in homemaking can in fact be softened by taking into account Sedaris’ unique vantage point while writing I Like You. The idea of a person who has perfected the art of folding napkins is frequently associated with the stay-at-home mother, reveling in her sphere of domesticity, and Sedaris, already a successful actor and writer at the time of publishing, does not appear to fit into this role. Rather, she is a single, career-oriented woman without children who is staunchly committed to preserving her independence. However, this does not mean that her enthusiasm for exceptional hand-crafted decorations should be interpreted as a joke; nor should her detailed description of entertainment for rabbits suggest a parody of maternal devotion. By all accounts, these are subjects close to Sedaris’ heart, and their inclusion in her book is affectionate rather than critical.

A woman who once turned down an acting gig because she couldn’t bear to uproot her rabbit and endure Los Angeles in the fall, Amy Sedaris is every bit the character seen covered in whipped cream, offering instructions for a canned fruit cocktail on page 227. This is not a joke cookbook, but rather the work of an artist borrowing freely from the traditions that preceded her, offering us her unique spin on a subject she respects and admires. 

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