Sunday, January 08, 2006

American Fried (Calvin Trillin)

After an especially busy day at work, I was packing up my stuff to go home and glanced at Calvin Trillin's book in my backpack. I immediately felt like hugging it. I can't say too many books get that kind of reaction from me, but there's just something about Trillin's writing style that is so comforting and entertaining, I can't get enough of it.

I looked for Calvin Trillin's Tummy Trilogy at the library (which is a collection of his first three books), but they only had the abridged version on audiobook, so I realized I'm going to have to read these early books free standing. The copy of first book, American Fried: Adventures of a Happy Eater, that the library had was very 1970s--a Penguin paperback with lots of handdrawn illustrations on the cover and on the chapter opening pages. My knowledge of American food history, which mostly dates the many versions of beef eaten by my family in my childhood and the extreme lack of anything remotely ethnic in our Midwestern town, is slim. In fact, I was worried that Trillin probably didn't have much to talk about in terms of food in the 1970s.

But Trillin believed then, just as he does now, in grass-roots food. He points out that at the time (before celebrity chefs and TV shows touting home-grown specialties) no one wanted to be special: If you were a food writer/food lover visiting a town, the locals would want to take you to their fancy "French" restaurant (the kind of thing that could make Trillin shudder) instead of letting you sample their great soul food. In American Fried, he searches for the best crawfish in New Orleans, tries a lot of chili in Cincinnati, has arguments with friends about who serves the best hamburger in the country, all while traipsing around New York city for the perfect bagel, fresh cream cheese, and mozerella.

There are a lot of things in this book that date it to its time. For one, when he mentions prices, sometimes I had a hard time telling if it was a high price or a low price (for example, he mentions eating "second-rate cheeseburgers" in New York that cost $1.75 each, which I'm guessing was expensive at the time). Also, he mentions that someone had collected information on 400 New York restaurants on a computer in California (this was revolutionary at the time), and the pre-Internet restaurant buzz was all about what favorite dive was exposed in the New York Times (to be ruined for all time by the great press, now fussy eaters would come there, Trillin and his friends lament) or a local restaurant newsletter for the devout.

Though Trillin is to me a democratic food man, he does still have some pretentions. This is also true of his wife, as he points out humorously: "There was a tense moment, I remember, the first time our older daughter asked for ketchup. 'How did you know about ketchup?' Alice asked, after informing her that we didn't have any. 'Those wild kids down the street probably told her,' I said. 'Maybe we oughtn't let her play with them any more."

But Trillin's main concern, above all else, is taste. He points out when someone scoffs at a dish for not being authentic, he doesn't really care if it's authentic. He asks, But did you like it? How did it make you feel?

Other good books: I'm probably going to work my way through all the Calvin Trillin food books available at the library because I really enjoy his work (see the previous review of Feeding a Yen). But I should point out that Trillin does not just write about food. He has been a New Yorker staff writer for many years, writing about food, politics, or whatever else he is interested in, and you can read all his works in that magazine in the newly available The Complete New Yorker, which has a fairly hefty price tag but is completely worth it if you enjoy the New Yorker (it has the entire archive of the magazine available digitally with great search capabilities). Trillin has also composed a book on the Bush administration that is in rhyme called Obliviously on He Sails: The Bush Administration in Rhyme.

Next book up: The Sweetheart Season by Karen Joy Fowler

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