Please Stop Laughing at Me… By Jodee Blanco. Adams Media. $12.95.
Top Secret Restaurant Recipes 3: The Secret Formulas for Duplicating Your Favorite Restaurant Dishes at Home. By Todd Wilbur. Plume. $16.
Although it is subtitled “One Woman’s Inspirational Story,” Jodee Blanco’s Please Stop Laughing at Me… (the ellipsis is part of the title) does not quite come across as the “humble attempt to inspire tolerance, understanding, and acceptance” that Blanco tells readers it is. The book is the story of a girl – now a woman – desperately seeking acceptance on others’ terms, unable to figure out who she is and where, if anywhere, she fits in. Reading Blanco’s own words, and reading between them, shows some of her inner conflict. Raised by Catholic parents who “instilled in me a strong sense of right and wrong,” she says only a few lines later that her parents “encouraged me to act independently, and to have a mind of my own.” She never notices that there is any conflict between being raised with strong values from a rigid religion while being simultaneously encouraged to be independent. Thus, she was especially happy when studying in Catholic grammar school, where everything was neatly arranged and laid out, and where she could be told by her mother to “say a prayer asking God to give [poor people] strength and opportunity.” Blanco’s background is not the primary focus of her book, but it is highly relevant to what is the focus, which is bullying. Outside her cloistered grammar-school life, in which she was taught by nuns, Blanco – at age 12 – first tries desperately to fit in with preteens who are far more sexually aware than she. That leads to Blanco calling her mom when things get too intense at a party – and that leads to Blanco being ostracized, then spit on, then physically beaten. Blanco soon finds herself totally isolated: “If I went to my teachers, my classmates would get into trouble, and it would make things worse. I couldn’t go to my parents for help because they would drag me to the psychiatrist’s office. It was bad enough that I was being treated like a freak by my peers. I sure didn’t want a shrink labeling me as one.” Things get better with a move to “rural suburbia,” then worse when her parents urge her just to be herself: “I had learned that you couldn’t be ‘gifted’ and liked at the same time.” Blanco’s story is one of unending misinterpretation – mostly by Blanco herself, although by others as well – with consequences that flow distressingly but not surprisingly from failures to understand and negotiate social dynamics. But as personal and unique as the story is, it has resonance as well. At one point, involved in playing a prank on a teacher, Blanco writes that the instructor’s words were “tinged with the sadness of one whose illusions have been completely shattered.” The same may be said, repeatedly, of Blanco’s own words. She holds back from class participation, knowing her grade will not be as good as it can be, “but not being the butt of everyone’s jokes is well worth the tradeoff.” She tries to fit in with “the cool crowd” and repeatedly fails. Spiraling down farther and farther, she cuts herself in a rage, falls into clinical depression, and – in an instance of extreme bad luck that has her questioning why God is doing this to her – develops a condition in which her breasts, as they grow, are seriously mismatched in size, eventually requiring surgery at the Mayo Clinic. Blanco gets through everything, including high school, gets into the college of her choice (NYU), embarks on a successful career, and – at the end of the book – has a triumphant reunion meeting with many of the now-older and much-changed bullies whose scorn she once endured. It is a long, long slog to get to the uplifting ending (although the book, at 284 pages, is not especially lengthy); and the intensely personal nature of the narrative somewhat limits its applicability to other instances of bullying – an issue that Blanco, now an anti-bullying activist, tries to handle with a list of resources and information on her “day-long anti-bullying program” at the end. Bullying (or “peer abuse,” as Blanco also calls it) is a real issue in schools, but Blanco’s book will only incidentally help families trying to handle it. Because the book is a memoir, it will be of interest mostly to others who have experienced their own peer-abuse horror stories and who want the reassurance that if Blanco could get through her own private purgatory, then they can survive their hellish experiences as well.
For memories that are far, far more pleasant – ones worth reliving without their being at the service of any cause other than culinary enjoyment – readers can now treat themselves to the third Top Secret Restaurant Recipes book by restaurant “reverse engineering” guru Todd Wilbur. It needs to be noted at once that these are not gourmet dishes from Michelin-rated restaurants. Everything here is more down-home than upscale, with Wilbur cloning foods from Applebee’s, Bonefish Grill, California Pizza Kitchen, Cheesecake Factory, Chili’s, Famous Dave’s, Hard Rock Café, Hooters, Olive Garden, P.F. Chang’s, Pizza Hut, Ruby Tuesday’s and similar establishments. Indeed, most of the food comes from midpriced restaurant chains that have suffered significant losses of business during the extended recession, as families have cut back on dining out. Wilbur’s book is equally likely to extend those cutbacks (because families can make similar foods at home) or reverse them (because his recipes are by no means always simple, and may give people a new appreciation of what goes into making some of their favorite restaurant foods). Using a series of food diagrams that resemble architectural blueprints, and a chatty commentary that mixes a trifle lumpily with the very matter-of-fact recipe instructions themselves, Wilbur tosses in some restaurant secrets that may leave readers a bit nonplussed about what they like to eat. For instance, in the recipe for IHOP Banana Macadamia Nut Pancakes, he notes, “the country’s largest flapjack house flavors the pancakes with imitation banana flavoring and a yellow food coloring, since real mashed bananas will eventually oxidize and turn a prepared batter brown.” Too much information? Well, Wilbur’s recipe uses real mashed bananas, “since we are going to use this batter right away.” But it also includes items that not everyone will necessarily have right at hand: light corn syrup, butter flavoring, imitation rum flavoring and buttermilk. In fact, it is surprising how complex the apparently simple chain-restaurant breakfasts can be. Writing about Denny’s Pancake Puppies, Wilbur says, “Initially I thought I could use an instant blueberry pancake mix to clone the new flavor, such as the mix made by Krusteaz. But those ‘blueberries’ in there aren’t even real blueberries – they’re blueberry-flavored bits. Blech!” Give Wilbur credit for not mincing words (although he does just fine at mincing, say, garlic or onions when a recipe needs them). The recipes here are arranged alphabetically by restaurant, which can make it a bit difficult to assemble a meal from several places’ specialties. You have to go through the whole table of contents to locate, say, Margaritaville’s Incommunicado Cocktail, Outback Steakhouse’s Bleu Cheese Pecan Chopped Salad, T.G.I. Friday’s Dragonfire Chicken, Joe’s Stone Crab’s Grilled Tomatoes, and Spago’s Pumpkin Cheesecake. Of course, the search can be part of the fun – and most readers will probably not try to create a whole meal from these recipes, since so many dishes’ requirements are so different. One unfortunate omission from the book is calorie, fat and salt data – in many areas, the restaurants themselves now have to display this information prominently, and it would be nice if Wilbur had done so for his clone dishes. Of course, it could be argued that people who frequent the sorts of restaurants whose foods are featured in the Top Secret Restaurant Recipes series are not especially concerned about nutrition, being focused more straightforwardly on taste. Certainly Wilbur makes a strong effort to get the tastes of these dishes right – and that alone may be enough of an enticement to persuade chain-restaurant fans who also enjoy cooking on their own to try out some of these dishes and see just how well they compare with the originals.