SEMI-STRANGE CONVERSATIONS (2019)
I asked Jason why he decided to join me on this semi-strange adventure. "Life is about the unexpected", he told me.
"Everybody has a story; you can't assume anything about anyone, except that they're doing the best they can."
She told me she's grateful that things have worked out the way they have thus far. "What do you think enabled this?" "Kindness. The people I've met along the way."
I cheated with this one. Vanessa and I aren't semi-strangers. But it's always nice to share some sugar with someone sweet.
"I'm not really a creative person anymore." As someone who is the proud owner of a stellar pencil crayon portrait of myself, as drawn by a 5th grade Jocelyne, I am severely distraught by, and disbelieving of this statement.
"I regret that I didn't take more time to get to know myself earlier on." "What does that look like?" "Doing things for myself instead of because of my family. Talking to people... I've learned so much by talking to people different than me."
"I feel like you can learn a lot about people from their side hustles. I'm still figuring out what mine is."
Some people send postcards. Some people buy souvenirs. Whenever Scott travels, he sees a show. He doesn't always know the artist performing, but each time, he creates a memory woven into music - a recollection he can (quite literally) replay at the touch of a button.
Serious questions pondered over the course of a single funnel cake: What is the difference between a soup and a cocktail? When something or someone is "toast" why is that a negative thing, when toast itself is a beloved breakfast staple? Why is 2-in-1 shampoo maligned and seen as not as effective as single use liquids?
Every time an artist he loves comes to town, Fred shoots them a message to offer local recommendations. An artist has yet to respond, but he continues to do so - his own way of expressing gratitude for them and their art.
While semi-strange chats can be everything from illuminating, philosphical, emotional, to downright fun, at the end of the day, it involves conversing with someone whom, by the very nature of this project, I don't know very well. Aman is someone I do know very well. I'm constantly grateful for her friendship, but over the course of this funnel cake, I was reminded just how grateful I am.
The day I messaged Matt to ask if he'd be down to embark on a semi-strange adventure, he had just signed a contract option in to a whole new adventure of his own - moving to Korea. I'm glad I caught him before he left!
Ingrid is a dietitian. I was a little worried she might turn down my offer... and reinforce the questionable nature of my current diet. But, she did join me. "Eating food is about nourishing your body. Treating yourself is a part of nourishing yourself." Thank you, Ingrid, for providing me with a go-to quote for whenever my mother tells me this project is insane.
"You definitely want to pace yourself, and not eat an entire funnel cake in front of people you've only met once or twice." Jared currently holds the record for fastest funnel cake consumption: 15 minutes.
A few years ago, Kim cleaned up her childhood bedroom, and found her old, faithful pair of oxford shoes that used to be part of the uniforms we wore back in high school. This shoes were much maligned back then.. but she realized they actually made for very practical footwear at the housing law firm where she currently practices. Well you know what they say... fashion is cyclical!
A few years ago, Natalie started working at the company her childhood self once dreamed of. Now that she's achieved this goal, she's not sure what's next. "I don't want to be a one layer cake!" she confided in me (as we shared a one layer funnel cake). When your passion suddenly becomes your career, what do you use to define yourself, to make you "special"?
This is my brother, and the two ominous figures lurking in the background are my parents. Yes, this is another not-so-strange conversation, but to be fair, when you buy an AYCE funnel cake membership, it would be an absolute crime not to share the spoils with your fellow sweet-toothed familial unit. Dad: "The cake is good. I just realized anything free is good."
I will now (embarrassedly) admit that for the entire duration of the time I've semi-known Kaveh, I've been pronouncing his name incorrectly.
"Kat, you're crazy" My roommate always knows when I've come home from a funnel cake chat because she can smell the aroma of fried dough wafting off my jacket. Anna, thank you for enduring my funnel cake scented wardrobe.
In 2019, I bought a two-month AYCE funnel cake membership, and subsequently shared forty-seven funnel cakes with forty-seven semi-strangers.
Who is a semi-stranger?
They are a kindergarten classmate you haven't seen in 13 years.
They are an artist, with whom you have mutual respect for each others' work, but have never met in person.
They are a fellow music lover, who you've met but once before, in the front row of a crowded venue.
They are a friend of a friend, whose acquaintance you've only ever made through secondhand stories.
They are not quite strangers, but not quite friends. They are the people you haven't spoken to in ages. They are the people you haven't spoken to at all. They are the people you say "Hey! Let's grab a coffee sometime" to, and then never do.
47 funnel cakes later, I learned a lot about these semi-strangers, but I also learned a lot about myself.
(because, let's face it, i know you have a lot of questions)
Q: What is a funnel cake?
The concept of the funnel cake dates back to the early medieval Persian world, where similar yeast-risen dishes were first prepared and later spread to Europe. Pennsylvania Dutch immigrants brought the yeast dish, known as Drechderkuche, to America, and around 1879, they developed the baking powder version, along with its new name, funnel cake. Funnel cakes are made by pouring batter into hot cooking oil in a circular pattern, and deep frying the overlapping mass until golden-brown. The batter is commonly poured through a funnel, creating its texture, and giving its name. Note: this sweet food history lesson was (lovingly) plagiarized off of the interwebs.
Q: How in the world does an AYCE funnel cake membership work?
I paid $40 + tax for a membership card clearly stating that "cardholders may indulge in one funnel cake an hour, every hour". This card was valid for two months, from January 1st - February 28th, 2019.
Q: Why funnel cake?
This was a much more interesting "hook" when connecting with semi-strangers.
Coffee is boring. Everybody does coffee chats. Also, this gal does not drink coffee, so every time she goes for a "coffee chat" with someone, it's actually a sham, because she doesn't actually drink coffee.
Funnel cake is typically consumed at theme parks or summer fairs. It usually has whimsical childhood memories associated with it. As such, it oftentimes created a backdrop for fun, lighthearted conversation, or introspective analysis of past selves. I find both topics very fascinating.
Economics. Say on average, two regular cups of coffee (one for myself, one for my semi-stranger guest) costs $6 total. By that logic, if I were to buy an AYCE funnel cake membership for $40, I would only have to go on 7 semi-strange encounters for the funnel cake to be the more cost-effective option.
A funnel cake is the perfect length of time for a conversation. A coffee is too short - you gulp it down and it's gone. A meal may be too long - between waiting for the food to be prepared, and taking the time to eat, it's a commitment to a lengthy conversation. A funnel cake is flexible. Enjoying the conversation? Pick at it slowly in between morsels of chatter. Not feeling the vibe? It's easy to excuse yourself even if you haven't quite finished it - after all the cakes are huge, and you don't wan't to ruin your diet! My funnel cake conversations ranged from 20 minutes to 4 hours, but most lasted around 45 minutes.
Q: Why aren't you dead / suffering from diabetes / shriveled into a human funnel cake after consuming so much fried dough?
Not to worry, like the rest of humanity, I'm gradually rotting on the inside. However, I have reason to believe that this natural decaying process has not being significantly expedited by the consumption of mass amounts of deep fried dough. With the exception of the first few funnel cakes (back in the early days of this experiment, when I actually enjoyed eating them), I have taken more or less only one bite out of each funnel cake (out of semi-strange solidarity).
Q: How did you decide which semi-strangers to contact?
I made a spreadsheet! If you know me, you're not surprised in the slightest, if you don't know me, welcome to the inner workings of my mind. I combed through my Facebook friends list, and made note of people who I hadn't had caught up with in a while, or whom I had very limited contact with. Of the 237 individuals I contacted, 51.9% responded to my message, and 21.9% agreed to meet up for some fun(nel cake).
Q: Weren't people a little creeped out that someone, who they barely knew, was trying to meet up with them?
I can only assume that the 48.1% of individuals who read, and never responded to, my messages presumed that this was all a clever ruse to recruit them into my MLM scam. I do not hold their silence against them whatsoever - after all, the sad reality of this day and age is that when someone reaches out to you out of the blue, they're probably trying to ask you for money, get you to buy something, or want to ask you for a recommendation/introduction. Nothing in life is free. This rings true for my funnel cake offer as well. While my intentions had nothing to do with recruiting them for my door-to-door yoga pants empire (which obviously does not exist, but whose stretchy-waisted apparel would have been terribly useful when consuming mass amounts of funnel cake), the offer wasn't without its own catch - a conversation with a semi-stranger. People are busy, and often barely have enough time for their own family, friends, or selves, much less a semi-stranger. In addition, some people would just rather not open up the can of worms that is spending a indeterminate amount of time awkwardly chatting with someone you, frankly, don't know. I have no hard feelings for those who said "no" - only gratitude for those who said "yes".
Q: Why did you meet with so many people?
The year previous, someone used their AYCE card to consume 100 funnel cakes. Being the type of person who gets competitive about ridiculous things, I knew I had to beat this unknown individual. In order to best them in the 58 day period my membership was valid, I had to average 1.7 FPD (funnel cakes per day). Every day, I would go straight from the office to the restaurant. On weekends, I would arrive right as the restaurant opened at noon, and sometimes stay well into the evening. The staff became my friends - I knew them by their names, as well as what movies they were watching, what courses they were taking, and sometimes even about their love lives. Fortunately, the restaurant was closed on Mondays.
Q: Why didn't you meet with more people?
My goal was 100 people, and I did not hit this goal... but not for a lack of trying. A little under one month into the experiment, at which point I had consumed 40 funnel cakes, and was well on track to completing my goal, I received a phone call from the store owner. "You're breaking the rules," he told me, "you're not supposed to be sharing them with people." I reminded him that I had it in writing from him, by way of an email exchange early on, that I was indeed allowed to share. "It says 'card holders may indulge in one funnel cake per hour, every hour'," he lectured me, "not 'card holders and their FRIENDS'". But what does it mean to "indulge" in something? One might indulge in a thing by tossing it in the trash, by rubbing it all over the face, or maybe, just maybe, one might indulge in a thing by sharing it with a friend. He did not take kindly to this line of reasoning. I thought about taking action, and fighting against what was a clear breach of contract. Many of the store employees, who now knew me decently well (after all, I was their most frequent customer), were even upset on my behalf. However, I had started this project to bring joy and positivity into my life... not murk and frivolous quasi-litigation. And so, after some curt discussion, I decided to end the experiment early.
Q: Have you been permanently scarred by this social experiment?
Yes. If I ever walk past the restaurant (which happens alarmingly often now... I moved nearby recently) while someone has the door open, I gag. I can't handle the smell. You may also notice that not all of the 47 semi-strangers are pictured above, and not every image has a caption. To be honest, after the way I was treated, I had a hard time continuing editing, writing, and posting for this project. It was tough to support and essentially advertise for a business that I felt slighted by.
Q: When was the last time you ate a funnel cake?
This past November (2019). The restaurant has a deal where they'll give you a free mini funnel cake on your birthday. I held my breath as I walked in, and quickly flashed my ID to prove the legitimacy of my claim. I did not dare eat the funnel cake. While they are delicious, not enough time has elapsed. If my smell receptors are still dealing with PTSD, I don't think my tastebuds could handle the trauma. I picked up the funnel cake out of principal more than anything else. I consider it one of the 100 funnel cakes that could have been.