Interview: Calvin Trillin – One hell of an eater

Trillin: I’m no food writer

The first sentence of the first chapter of “American Fried” lays down the gantlet:

“The best restaurants in the world are, of course, in Kansas City. Not all of them; only the top four or five. Anyone who has visited Kansas City and still doubts that statement has my sympathy: He never made it to the right places.”

Calvin Trillin’s love affair with soulful food, played out on the pages of The New Yorker, made a lot of people hungry for things they had never seen, in places they had never been.

Over the years, Trillin has celebrated boudin, Italian sausage sandwiches, Mission burritos and other foods best enjoyed standing up in the pages of The New Yorker – a magazine of such studied sophistication it would think nothing of publishing a 16-page profile of a lesser-known Bolivian cellist.

His presence was a revelation, like the first perfect oyster loaf in a New Orleans joint. He’s even published An Attempt to Compile a Short History of the Buffalo Chicken Wing.

Today, The Buffalo News published my interview of Trillin, covering topics like why he shouldn’t be considered a food writer, how he discovered Super Taste on Eldridge Street in Chinatown, and why a guy who’ll fly to Singapore to write about snacks won’t take the 7 train to Queens for dinner.

He doesn’t seem to think too much of food blogs, especially the restaurant one-upsmanship that can take place in a competitive blogging environment.

I’ve interviewed more than a few famous writers, and Trillin was among the most humble, agreeable stars I’ve ever had a chance to chat with. His collection “The Tummy Trilogy,” the News November Book of the Month, includes “American Fried,” “Alice, Let’s Eat” and “Third Helpings,” his first three books of eating articles. It’s simply a must-read for people for whom food is more than just fuel.

For the better part of two decades, Calvin Trillin has protested that he is not a food writer.

He has a point. Besides hundreds of articles for The New Yorker in a 40-year career at the magazine, Trillin has 24 books to his credit, most not devoted to eating. They include poetry, fiction, nonfiction and a book about his wife, Alice, who died of cancer in 2001.

Alas, his protests have been of little use, for Trillin’s essays on eating have a curious way of awakening in readers hungers whose names they never knew. Dirty rice and oyster loaves. Barbecued mutton and pan-fried chicken. Pan bagnat and boudin and fanesca.

Don’t know what fanesca is? If you let Trillin tell you, prepare for the craving that will lay siege to your imagination, extinguished only by airline tickets to Ecuador during Holy Week.

Since you don’t like being called a food writer, maybe “eating writer” would work?

It is more about eating than food. It came about simply because when I was doing this “U.S. Journal” series for the New Yorker, a piece every three weeks somewhere in the United States, at some point, I can’t remember whether it was the Crawfish Festival in Beaux Bridge, or a piece on Cincinnati chili, I realized I could get sort of relief from controversies and murder stories by writing about eating – writing about the country in a lighter way.

In New York City, do you ever hanker for something you can’t get?

Oh, yeah. Actually, if there is a theme to the last eating book, “Feeding a Yen,” it’s about yearning for things you can only get someplace else. Pimientos de padron in Spain, or pan bagnat in Nice, or something like that. It used to be barbecue you couldn’t get in New York, but now New York has succumbed to barbecue.

Do you think Americans appreciate regional specialties more today than when you started writing about them?

Oh, yeah. I’m not sure I’d say they appreciate them more, but they’re willing to admit they appreciate them. I think when I first started writing about eating, it partly came from stumbling on a way to do lighter pieces, but also I was in a strange city every three weeks. I started doing that series in 1967. It was an era when if you asked somebody where to eat, particularly if you were interviewing a Chamber of Commerce type or something, he would immediately suggest what I came to call “La Maison de la Casa House, Continental Cuisine.” So just to keep body and soul together, I started looking for other places to eat. But in those days, I think people would have been sort of embarrassed to take a visitor to the sort of place they really liked. Even though they always they said they would never live in New York, they sort of judged a place by the standards of New York. So they’d say, “We have a wonderful Continental restaurant,” or “We have a wonderful French restaurant.”

As you wrote, the accurate if impolite answer would be: “No, you don’t.”

If I ran out of ideas I would go to the desk at the motel and grab the guy by his tie and pull him over the counter to get his attention, and say: “Not the place you took your parents for their 35th wedding anniversary. The place you went after you got back from 13 months in Korea.”

You’re sort of downplaying your credentials as a food writer —

I’m not downplaying them. I have none.

Where does your hunger come from? You could have anything.

Obviously there are things I like better than others. I don’t think of myself having a refined palate. I’ve never reviewed a restaurant, as I said, or said, “This is what boeuf bourguignon is supposed to taste like.” That’s partly what I mean by no credentials. I think of myself as an amateur who uses eating as a way of one — writing about the country or some other country, and two — telling jokes.

So you’re not like the late R.W. Apple Jr.

No. I’m only about a third of his size.

But something made you say: “Winstead’s. Now that’s how a hamburger should be.”

A lot of that was nostalgia. I think one of the things that started me writing about eating was the realization that when people from Kansas City, which happened to be my hometown, got together, what they talked about was Winstead’s hamburgers or Bryant’s barbecue or something. They didn’t talk about some imitation French restaurant. The sort of eating I’ve always been interested in is what I guess you’d call vernacular eating. It has something to do with a place. Buffalo chicken wings have something to do with Buffalo. The fact that people in Cincinnati have something they call authentic Cincinnati chili, and seem unaware that people in the Southwest eat chili, let alone Mexicans, and think that chili is made by Macedonians and served on spaghetti, that’s interesting to me. Whether Skyline chili is better than Empress chili I don’t really care about.

What’s new to eat in New York City worth celebrating?

Well, there is now edible barbecue here. I used to think barbecue was literally illegal in New York, because of some environmental rules, but I guess they’ve gotten around them somehow. You know, there’s a new province of China practically monthly around here. I put in some piece that it’s sort of like one of those wedding organizers telling people where to stand in the line, as they go down before the bride. “Hunan, OK, you fall in right behind Szechuan, Fujian get behind there.” I think the big change in what was available to eat in America has been the sort of instant spread of things. But even more, the 1965 Immigration Act, which changed from a system that literally let in more English people than wanted to come, and kept out Chinese people. When you think of that in culinary terms, that’s suicidal.

You wrote about Jim Leff and in “New Grub Streets.” Has the Internet, and its ability to connect the food freaks, changed anything in eating?

The Internet has changed this, like most things. There are I don’t know how many sites in New York where things instantly get put up. The interesting thing about Chowhound is that everyone writes with such authority, and just dismiss the previous guy, as not knowing what he’s talking about. You have a different situation in New York than you do in Kansas City, where I grew up. In Kansas City, if there’s a good restaurant, even if it’s in an obscure location, within a couple of weeks, everybody in Kansas City who is at all interested in eating knows about it. In New York, there’s this constant excitement about discovery, about discovering a new restaurant. Which blogger wrote about it first. Of course, immediately, the sort of competitor says, “Nobody goes there anymore. It hasn’t been good for years. The grandmother went back to Peru, and she was the secret.”

5 Responses to “Interview: Calvin Trillin – One hell of an eater”

  1. Good interview, man. I love the Trillin books, which formed sort of a food Torah for me with Jane and Michael Stern’s Roadfood and Goodfood. (I have an unhappy story about the Sterns which I shan’t repeat here.) Even made pilgrimage to KC. Bryant’s ribs rock.

  2. Trillin’s photo is soo much nicer than that graphic in the News.

  3. Fantastic review, Andrew. Now I’m hungry, and have more places to check out next time I’m in NYC.

  4. What a great review, Andrew. Trillin is almost as much a character as you. M

  5. This is great but you would have loved hearing Calvin Trillin school Alice Waters on Buffalo Wings–she said the didn’t know what they were at their lecture in San Francisco last month. But you better believe they both spoke of their love of pimientos de padron.