Merrill Markoe should be content. She is the former Emmy-winning head writer for the David Letterman Show (she created "stupid pet tricks") and Letterman's former girlfriend. She has written four funny novels and several books of essays. Yet instead of being content, she's contentious, as she announces in the title of her most recent collection of rants, and who can blame her? Markoe was born to a mother so aggressively critical that she carried around a marking pen to correct spelling and grammar mistakes she spotted in grocery stores and gas stations and on her daughter's homework papers.
The criticism never stopped, Markoe explains in Cool, Calm & Contentious (Villard, 2011).
"She was in all ways a relentless and scrupulous cataloguer of my many shortcomings. I was always too fat or too thin; my hair was too long, too shapeless, or too short; my clothes were too loose or too tight, too trendy or too adult, their colors too loud or too somber," she writes.
Her mother's travel diaries reveal that places as well as people were the object of her harsh judgments.
St. Mark's Square in Venice is in "terrible taste," her mother wrote.
The exterior of the Royal Palace in Madrid, the home of Spanish kings, is "ugly, grey, forbidding, large and ornate."
The bathroom at the Mount Royal Hotel in London is so small that a person sitting on the toilet "could become a double amputee if the door was opened while performing."
As Markoe concludes, "She seemed to take pride in her ability to scratch the surface of beauty and find something disappointing lurking beneath.
"It seems ludicrous that I spent the first half of my life seeking a positive review from someone who thought Piazza San Marco was in terrible taste."
Despite the complaints about her mother's critical nature, Markoe's essays reveal how she benefited from their relationship. Her writing is sharp and funny — and grammatically perfect. Her outlook seems appropriately caustic for this day and age. And one of her best essays, "How to Spot an A--hole," contains useful insights. Among the warning signs, according to Markoe, is an obvious lack of interest in you. (Such people "are generally under the impression that when they are talking about themselves for hours on end, a mutually fascinating conversation is taking place.") Also, when people repeat themselves, they're probably speaking not to anyone specific but to their imaginary "audience." ("They live their lives like they are on a personal promotional junket and therefore say the same things to everyone they see.") Markoe trains her jaundiced eye on an array of topics — dogs, virginity, celebrity criminals — and in every case, like her mother, she manages to scratch the surface and find something disappointing lurking beneath.
Markoe is cool as a cucumber that has soaked in the essence of jalapenos, onions, garlic and Tabasco Green Pepper Sauce, which is why this recipe for Spicy Cucumber Gazpacho would make an ideal accompaniment to a discussion of her rather piquant opinions. The recipe comes from the Luna Café website tended by Susan S. Bradley (thelunacafe.com). "It's not fattening," Bradley says of the dish. "It's also sensationally satisfying with BIG flavor."
If you'd rather drink cucumbers than eat them, you can use them to make a martini, but you must prepare the cucumber juice correctly, according to Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, which offers a detailed recipe at evilmadscientist.com. To make four martinis, peel about six cucumbers, slice them lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Puree the cucumbers in a food processor and strain the pulp with cheesecloth, which should make about 1 cup of juice. For a savory cucumber martini, mix 2 ounces of the cucumber juice with 2 ounces of good gin. Garnish with olive-sized cucumber chunks skewered with a toothpick.
Tom Valeo, special to the Times
Read & Feed is a monthly column in Taste that matches popular book club selections with food to serve at meetings. If you have suggestions or would like to share what your book club is cooking up, send an email to email@example.com. Put BOOK FOOD in the subject line.