Baking Amy

By Su Ciampa, Photos by Michael Lavine

“How do you like your tea?”   This polite question is not what I expect as I walk into Amy Sedaris’ West Village apartment. I’d imagined that she would be a little strange, considering. You’d have to have a bit of the absurd in you to portray Strangers With Candy‘s reformed degenerate Jerri Blank, a character Amy made famous. And then there is the family tie – to David Sedaris, her famously slanted novelist brother. But when I cross the threshold, I don’t find anything particularly unusual. I do not fall down the rabbit hole. A mad hatter does not accost me. Instead, I am greeted with the tempered gentility of a Southern belle. You can almost smell the jonquils.

Amy mills about in the kitchen while I check out her digs, a very carefully placed house of kitsch. With an apartment as eclectic and spotless as hers, Good Housekeeping would be impressed. Yet hers is no ordinary decor. A few tasteful faux butcher items are on display, a fully-dressed plastic turkey sits on top of the TV, and a miniature doll’s wig keeps watch from its faceless stand atop the bookshelf. The living room is inhabited by a menagerie of stuffed animals – some synthetic, others actual taxidermy (one of her sisters dabbles in the craft). As Amy hands me my cup of tea, she explains that “everything in my apartment has a name because it comes alive at night.” I meet a well-preserved squirrel avec chapeau named Winks, a fuzzy toy duck called Bill Downs, and a sage bunny dubbed Dr. Penny Nickels, and I settle in for what promises to be some enchanted evening.

Along with the tea, Amy offers me a homemade cheese ball, featuring a miniature ham implanted, flag-on-the-moon-style, in the top. Cheese balls, it turns out, are a Sedaris staple. “They’re the perfect thing to bring to a party because no one makes them anymore,” she tells me, curling into a rocking chair. Amy’s cheese ball is something of a signature piece; she favors a blend of smoked Gouda and cream cheese over the traditional cheddar-and-pimento mixture. They put to shame the processed cheesefood horrors of shopping mall kiosks. “I’m not so much a good cook as I just like to feed people, you know?” she says, and there is nothing self-deprecating in her statement. Like everything that comes out of Amy’s mouth, it is very matter-of-fact. “And my food doesn’t usually look presentable. I decorate my meats with parsley, but it never looks beautiful.” I nod and nip into my tea.

“Did you get the sugar, by the way? In Gino Zucchino?” Amy nods toward a plastic blue orb with feet on the coffee table.

“What exactly is this?” I ask. The object in question resembles the offspring of a Pac-Man character and a Snork.

“This is Gino Zucchino. Isn’t he cute? He comes in different colors.” Amy smiles beatifically, an obviously proud mother.

“It’s great. Is it meant for sugar?”

“Yeah. Or dimes. You could put dimes in it. You can put anything you want in it. I always get people that as a housewarming present.”

Amy, it turns out, is also something of a baking queen. “When we’re doing a play, I bake for the play. I sell my cupcakes during intermission.” But how does such a busy writer and performer make room in her schedule for a baking binge? “God, I always find time to bake. I’ll bake late at night, around twelve o’clock, because I like to stay up late. Somewhere between twelve and three in the morning is when I bake. I love it when it gets dark early ’cause I’m like, ‘Now, finally, I can start my day!”‘

At times during our interview she seems distracted, but maybe it’s because she’s throwing a dinner party the following night, and there’s a grandiose to-do list to tackle, including plans for a special dessert.

“[With] cupcakes, you don’t need a lot of elbow space, but when I get into making a big dinner, it’s just, you know, a nightmare. I’d love a bigger kitchen. Or not even a bigger kitchen, but just more counter space.” When in need of culinary guidance, Amy consults David’s boyfriend, Hugh, whom she considers a brilliant cook. “I’m making a pie for tomorrow night and I was going to call him and say, ‘Oh, just make my pie crust. I don’t want to make it!'”

Amy often pretends she has a cooking show (and wouldn’t mind having a real one some day). “Did you ever do that?” she asks. The closest I can offer is performing the occasional rock concert in my mirror. Amy, meanwhile, is a great pretender, a talent that started early. Her childhood performances went beyond living room theatrics – she was known to turn her bedroom into a classroom for stuffed animals every day after school and adapt local personas for outings to the grocery store. Even today, Amy is forever gleaning material from the real-life characters that surround her. For instance, the outgoing message on her answering machine is a recorded imitation of her Greek grandmother, Ya Ya (who “didn’t so much cook as boil things,” as brother David has written).

Ya Ya is an anomaly; for the most part, Amy’s kitchen passion has been a family affair. “Everyone in my family cooks,” she stresses. She is easily seduced by Williams-Sonoma, and David supports Amy’s culinary delights by bringing her copper pots from France, where he currently lives.

David has been her enabler in other ways – he encouraged her to move from Raleigh to Chicago to hone her comedic skills at improv theater’s ground zero, The Second City. There she met current sidekicks Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello. After another move, this time to New York City, the three collaborated on a play, Stitches (co-written with big brother), which led to interest in developing a series from HBO and Comedy Central. The initial result was the sketch comedy endeavor Exit 57 in 1995, which paved the way for Strangers With Candy four years later.

It was for Strangers that Amy first received widespread critical acclaim, playing the loveable Jerri Blank, who, after a lifetime as a “user, boozer, and loser,” returns to high school to start over at age 46. Amy is incredibly protective of Jerri, who, she says, dresses “like someone who owns snakes.” Even though Strangers with Candy was cancelled, she’s maintained close contact with her castmates. She’s working on a book for Hyperion with Strangers Dinello and Colbert, and she’s considering a possible new series with the Strangers triumvirate for Fox. She’s also awaiting the opening of the play she co-wrote with David this spring in New York.

Then there’s been the occasional photo shoot with Todd Oldham. “He called me up and he’s like, ‘Okay, Amy, are you willing to show your ass?’ And I was like, ‘For a laugh I’ll do it, sure, it’s no problem.’ So he came up here the other day, took some pictures. And I had this prosthetic arm, you know, and I laid on the bed with my pants off…”

Forget the grandiose posturings of Martha Stewart, there’s a new homegirl for the 21st century. Without a doubt, Amy Sedaris could certainly give Betty Crocker a run for her Crisco. And to me, she’s an ideal candidate for The Girl With The Most Cake.

Amy Sedaris’ Cheese Ball Recipe
2 8 oz. packages cream cheese
2 cups shredded smoked Gouda
1 stick butter (Amy uses unsalted for everything)
2 tbsp. milk, cream, or half-and-half
2 tsp. A-l steak sauce
2 cups crushed nuts, any variety (Amy likes walnuts)
crackers for serving

Allow ingredients to soften to room temperature.
Beat them all together in a mixing bowl and form into a ball, or form into several small balls to suit your function/needs. Roll in crushed nuts and refrigerate. Remove from refrigerator and allow to soften about 20 minutes before serving. Serve with crackers of your choice.