A special treat this week: our first book review. A friend recently lent me a copy of the book Employee of the Month and Other Big Deals by Mary Jo Pehl. You might recognize that name–we’ll come back to that. The book is a collection of essays drawn from some of the more embarassing moments from her life growing up and living in Minnesota, and then moving to New York City and beyond. Dating, jobs, political dynasties, USDA nutrition guidelines…it’s all there.
In some ways, the book reminded me of Michael Perry. Not so much in content or tone, but they both have a certain Midwestern eccentricity, a “Prairie Home Companion“-ness about them. The essays have a plainly evident truthfulness to them (working in both directions– just as she did not spare herself the embarassing details, she did not inflate the stories beyond reality into farce). What struck me about her writing style was the conciseness of it. Stories are trimmed right to the bone. It’s rather like if David Sedaris was the surrogate mother to Strunk & White‘s baby.
Oh, by the way, I mentioned before you might recognize her name. If you do, it’s probably because she was one of the writers and stars of Mystery Science Theater, as well as its live theater progeny, Cinematic Titanic.
I didn’t read the book intending to write about it here. But many of the stories had something to do with food, or even more specifically, Midwestern food. And then I got to the story titled “A Love Forbidden”. After that, I knew I wanted to write about the book and I wanted to share that story with you. So I contacted Mary Jo and asked for permission to reprint that story here. Not only did she graciously agree, but she was also kind enough to answer a few rambling non sequiturs I cobbled together and called an interview. Below find “A Love Forbidden” reprinted with permission from Employee of the Month and Other Big Deals, and below that my interview with Mary Jo Pehl. If you’d like to buy the book (and you would) you can get it on Amazon (by clicking the title in the previous sentence, among other ways).
A LOVE FORBIDDEN
A long time ago, I once loved a very special cheese. You are no doubt shocked, as our love is frowned upon by the draconian social conventions of our time, and given the strict caste system of the food chain, I am forbidden to wed any nutriment beneath me. But I loved cheese more than any dairy product I have ever known before; nay, more than any item on the third level and left side of the FDA food pyramid! There! I don’t care if the whole world knows it!
Let me start at the beginning. I had gone out for a late-night dinner with the man whom I was psychically commanding to be my boyfriend. We ordered a cheeseburger to split, and the waitress wanted to know what kind of cheese we wanted. As far as I was concerned this was none of her business and I rebuffed her meddling.
Nonetheless, Steve urged me to try the pepperjack. I was apprehensive – I am always nervous around new cheeses, but I relented. The waitress left, seemingly satisfied with this information, and Steve assured me that she would not use it for malicious or seditious purposes. We continued our conversation, and I continued to telepathically will him to be my boyfriend.
The hamburger arrived and Steve cut it in half. I was still able to sustain my silent mind control of him, and I couldn’t help but notice that the the manner in which he offered me the ketchup seemed overtly romantic, if not downright erotic, though some might use the word ‘perfunctory’. Be that as it may. I was apprehensive but I steadied myself and took a dainty bite. It was that moment that I fell madly, wildly in love. Here I suppose you are cheering Steve’s and my nuptials – but it was not he with whom in love fell I.
“Steve? Steve who?” I asked myself – facetiously, of course, for I knew Steve who, as he was sitting right beside me and I use hyperbole to illustrate my abrupt indifference to Steve. You see, before that moment I had not known cheese. And while Steve obliviously salted his french fries I instantaneously released him from my psychic grip, and pepperjack and I made hushed plans to elope that very morrow.
The next morning I set about happily packing my trousseau. Pepperjack and I had planned a private ceremony on a secluded beach in the Bahamas and the bus left in just a couple of hours. The doorbell rang. Surely this was my beloved cheese come to whisk me away to the Greyhound station to begin our new lives together!
I flung the door open. It was my father wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the delightful aphorism You’ll Get My Gun When You Pry It Out of My Cold, Dead Hands and a jaunty cap bearing the epigram When Guns Are Outlawed Only Outlaws Will Have Guns. I always delighted in Daddy’s witticisms, and then I saw a shotgun in his hands.
He burst through the door. “Where’s the cheese?!” he yelled. “Where’s that no-good son of a -?!” My heart hammered with fear. How had Daddy learned about Pepperjack and me? Had Steve seen our clandestine canoodling and then alerted my father? He knew Daddy was virulently lactoseintolerant! This could only be Steve’s vicious retaliation for me having ceased my psychic control of him.
“Daddy,” I said, “Daddy, calm down.” At that very moment, my pepperjack came bounding up the sidewalk clutching a single red rose. Father whirled around.
“Daddy, no!” I cried. It was too late. A shot rang out and my pepperjack crumbled to the ground in a heap, bits of curds splattered on the steps. The rose fell from his grasp. I flung myself over the lifeless wedge and wept. My beloved dairy product died there, on the threshold of our lives together.
People have tried to comfort me by saying things like, “There are other cheeses, dear,” or “Better this than having to watch him die a long, painful death from something like mold.” Even my best friend said, “He’s in a better place now.” But I cannot imagine that laying in a landfill somewhere amidst disposable diapers, frozen pizza boxes and banana peels is “a better place.”
So you see – love does not conquer all. For Pepperjack and I have tried.
K: I found the entire book to be incredibly funny, and quite touching at times. A friend lent me her copy and I read it in pretty much one sitting the next day. Was it a pleasurable experience putting these stories down on paper? I’m wondering whether it was cathartic, or whether the embarrassments were such old news at this point that it’s just like telling an old joke?
MJP: Thank you for your kind words. I’m delighted you liked it! I found it cathartic writing these stories, but not for the reason I think you may be suggesting. One of the things I talk about in this book is how my first “book” went horribly wrong and my embarrassment about that. So re-writing many of those stories for this volume, having more experience under my belt and being surer of my “voice”, was really cathartic and fun. And I cut a lot of stuff, which is very freeing – knowing some of it wasn’t right or fully developed.
In one part of the book, you talk about how when you were growing up, “homemade cake” meant you used a box mix and added eggs and water– rather than just buying the cake at the gas station. I was wondering if you knew that, when they were first making boxed cake mix, they were going to include powdered egg, but in the end they left it out just to give people something to do so they could feel involved. That’s not much of a question, just a depressing fact.
I didn’t know that! You do wonder, don’t you, what the thinking was behind that. “We want housewives in this new era of ‘convenience’ to feel that they participated in the process and were agents in its completion!” You wonder if there was a sense of paternalism behind it, to the effect of “We want the little lady to feel fulfilled! Go on! Break real eggs!”
But how has your attitude towards food changed? You mention working at Bon Appetite, did they convert into a foodie at all? Do you own a stove now?
I do have a stove, and I actually cook! And yes, there’s a story in my book about living in New York in an efficiency apartment without a functioning stove all the while working at Bon Appetit magazine. What I learned at Bon Appetit is that not everything had to be fast food or takeout. I got turned on to goat cheese. I discovered mole which blew my mind – you can have chocolate NOT in a candy bar?! Together with Mexican food?!?! I learned the difference between compote and compost.
My small town Midwestern palate was used to an assault of food – bland, mushy combinations which, don’t get me wrong, have their place (tater tot casserole – ‘nuff said) but as a person who struggles with, ahem, over-ingestion of foodstuff, discovering subtlety and variety has helped me eat healthier. I also learned the idea of quality not quantity.
And yes, we have a stove. A gas stove. When company comes a-callin’ and take note of the gas stove, I’m told it’s desirable. What do I know?!
At several points, you reference a love of reading. Care to share a few of your favorites, particular stuff you find funny? Do you read any other Midwestern essayists (if that what you’d consider this book), like maybe Michael Perry (Population 451, Truck)? You have a very different style from him, but perhaps similar sensibilities.
Oh, I’ll have to check out Michael Perry! Thanks for turning me on to him.
I read David Sedaris (natch); I just read “The Best Essays of 2011” which was wonderful; I’m a huge Melville fan and he’s actually really funny; “Confederacy of Dunces” is so funny I can’t even laugh at it – I just gasp and go lay down. Oooh, and there’s Merrill Markoe, Ann LaMotte…
I read a lot of non-fiction: a couple of my favorites are “In The Heart of The Sea” by Nathanael Philbrook which I absolutely hated to see end, and “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.” I wish I could write and research like that – taking a vast amount of information and making it come together in an unputdownable book.
Right now I have pile of memoirs next to the bed and which I plan on taking on our vacation to the Gulf of Mexico this summer: Dick Van Dyke, Keith Richards, Dyan Cannon, and the one Jerry Lewis wrote about his time with Dean Martin.
And I can hardly talk to Mary Jo Pehl and not bring up MST3K. And actually, in a funny way, MST3K is a perfect example of the kind of experience we’re searching for on this site. It was very much a product of the Midwest, and could not be mistaken as being from somewhere else… it’s interesting, several times already I’ve referenced the Midwest, and I don’t really know how strongly you identify as a Midwesterner. Is that something you consider an important identifier, or fairly meaningless to you?
I don’t know how much of an identifier it is, as it is part and parcel of who I am. Once simply does not divest oneself of one’s regionalism or background, I suppose, Holly Golightly notwithstanding.
One of the things I adored about MST3K was that mostly all the writers and actors came from the Midwest and we made midwestern references. We were all brought up on television shows that took place in Los Angeles or New York and those settings were a given. I loved that we got to do the same, only with the Midwest.
I really get miffed at people who used the Midwest as a litmus test of narrow-mindedness or conservatism. People often don’t get how progressive the Midwest is. I find as much or more provincialism in New York or L.A. with their ideas of how provincial we are!
Of course now you are doing Cinematic Titanic. How have you been enjoying that? I bought tickets to the show in Milwaukee a few weeks ago but last minute work stuff prevented me from going. Please tell me you’re planning on continuing the CT tours so that I’ll have more chances to see a show.
We were wondering where you were. We held the show for about 45 minutes wondering when the hell Keith was going to get there. And hell, no, we’re not continuing the tour so that you have more chances to see a show. You blew it.