|Calvin Trillin's The Tummy Trilogy|
And you linger like a haunting refrain
And I find you spinning 'round in my brain
Like the bubbles in a glass of champagne . . .
. . . You go to my head with a smile
That makes my temperature rise
Like a summer with a thousand Julys
You intoxicate my soul . . .
It was my birthday a few weeks ago and I wish I could tell you that I was awash with birthday champagne or even Pimms, but I wasn't. During the neo monsoon season that had cloaked Britain in grey clouds and downpours for months, I was in a foul mood. Things were bad. I didn't even feel much like cooking. Yes, it was that bad. I even cancelled my birthday drinks due to lack of interest (my own) and had returned to my cave to sulk.
Fortunately, despite my bad mood, I still enjoy reading. I had bought myself a present – ordering a second-hand copy of The Tummy Trilogy over the internet. Since it arrived, my mood has cheered, the sun has come out and I have been savouring this book ever since. Calvin Trillin’s writing intoxicates me – I find bubbles of laughter welling up inside; my whole body feels weak the way it does after you have a fit of the giggles or indeed a large glass of champagne, and I can hardly breathe. Good humour has been thoroughly restored.
If you are British then the chances are you may not be familiar with Calvin Trillin, an American writer who published a series of essays about food in the 1970s and 80s, in The Nation and the New Yorker. If you are American, then I am sure you are aware of your national treasure, but why hasn't he got his own public holiday or at least a stamp?
The Tummy Trilogy is a collection of his food-related essays, published as American Fried, Third Helpings and Alice, Let's Eat, between the early 1970s and ‘80’s, which describe his obsession with good things to eat over some 20 years. How can you not enjoy a writer who says “If the crab could have chosen to die and be stuffed this way I am sure it is what he would have wanted” or that "I'm here to tell you that compared to a monkfish, the average catfish looks like Robert Redford"?
Trillin is an enthusiastic eater, rather than an expert in fine dining. He is not a gourmet, but a man greedy for food experiences. For him, good food is not about foie gras and fancy chefs, but a good local restaurant, or food or street festival. He admits that he doesn't cook although he has perfected a fool proof way of scrambling eggs so that they always stick to the bottom of the pan! He prefers his food served at a lunch counter rather than a table and likes to be surrounded by people and their stories.
Trillin is an early proponent of slow rather than fast food, and a lover of street food, he is happy to wait half an hour while his food is cooked, particularly if he can be regaled by interesting anecdotes from the friends or strangers around him. He believes that the lack of good stories is why so much fast food is indigestible. He believes that dining at the counter is, as he recalls eating the perfect potato latkes off Petticoat Lane in London's east end, is that the eater has "the additional pleasure of jumping up and down occasionally in delight." How can we not be delighted with him?
This is a man who is nobly prepared to travel across the United States (and the rest of the world, given half a chance) on his stomach, preferably on his full stomach. Trillin’s writing is so infectious that I now have an overwhelming desire to experience American barbecue, in all of its regional glories, but particularly Arthur Bryant in Kansas City. I want to indulge myself in the glory that is BBQ brisket, particularly the burnt ends as deliciously described by Trillin.
I don't understand all the cultural (or even historical) references, but Calvin Trillin is such a charming story teller that it really doesn’t matter. I particularly enjoyed his essay on why Spaghetti Carbonara should replace the turkey at Thanksgiving. It took me a while to realise that one of the recurring jokes about the “President”, was in fact about Richard Nixon. But while that may be dated, the joke is not and in fact, some things just haven't changed at all. He is writing about restaurants at a time before the internet and citizen journalism. He is intrigued when a friend develops a computer programme as a way of storing data about some 400 restaurants in New York, but realises sadly that while you can store information about the quality of the food and the decor, nothing can ever help you search on the personality and ambience of a place. Plus ça change.
He laments the Cliabornisation of restaurants (in effect what happens to good local restaurants when a famous restaurant critic writes a great review) and again, this is as true today as it was in the 60s and 70s, where a perfectly lovely local restaurant is ruined by "fine diners" . . . as Skye Gyngell's recent departure from Petersham Nurseries has demonstrated.
I don’t even mind his shots at lampooning British food. Frankly he wasn't saying anything that the sane and -luded had been saying for a few decades. It was awful in the ‘60s and ‘70s! At least we got in with the jokes first. Of experiencing food in England in those days, Trillin says "I know there is a widespread feeling that anyone with my priorities should look upon Great Britain more or less the way Charles de Gaulle used to - from a distance and down the nose."
When I read any humorous writing, I am usually laughing on the inside, but Calvin Trillin excites me so much that I want to share his fabulous one-liners with everyone and anyone around me. It doesn't often work and during my "not birthday" celebrations at the pub (where for one evening my friends were prepared to tolerate my obsessive food story telling), as I sat chortling and guffawing with laughter, I was regarded by stony faced glares from my friends. I am spluttering with laughter. They are thinking "dear god, we have to put up with this cr*p again and she didn't even bring us cake."
I like to read on the bus or tube. But not only is commuting in London one of the most cruel and unusual tortures known to woman, where you occasionally are forced to get rather more upfront and personal with complete strangers than you would choose to, but now Londoners have to suffer my shaking and twitching (with laughter). On the plus side I don't often have to share a seat if I am reading Calvin Trillin. So he could be regarded as some kind of secret weapon, or just some kind of fairy godfather making travelling around London much more bearable.
In short, Calvin Trillin’s writing is perfect. Absolutely perfect. As a lazy reader, I will race through prose by people who may well be celebrated proponents of their craft, but who I find a bit clunky. But a writer like Trillin is to be devoured very, very slowly. I find myself going back over a page just to enjoy how one of his jokes is set up, the set up, the diversion, the punch line. Bish, bash, bosh. A master class in humorous writing.
I have decided that given the opportunity, Calvin Trillin would be one of my fantasy diners, I am sure he would adore one of my other guests, Marilyn Monroe and her "is there any other part of the mazo you can eat?" but might find the Duke of Wellington a little imperious, but I am sure he would bring him down to earth with a few well-chosen words. One thing I can be sure of is great conversation, good food and we'll raise a glass or two!
So if that isn't enough to make you rush out and buy, then here are a few of examples of his humour:
- Health food makes me sick.
- I never eat in a restaurant that's over a hundred feet off the ground and won't stand still.
- The food in such places is so tasteless because the members associate spices and garlic with just the sort of people they're trying to keep out.
- The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found.
- I'm in favour of liberalized immigration because of the effect it would have on restaurants. I'd let just about everybody in except the English.
- When it comes to Chinese food I have always operated under the policy that the less known about the preparation the better. A wise diner who is invited to visit the kitchen replies by saying, as politely as possible, that he has a pressing engagement elsewhere.
- Even today, well-brought-up English girls are taught by their mothers to boil all veggies for at least a month and a half, just in case one of the dinner guests turns up without his teeth.
- Following the Jewish tradition, a dispenser of schmaltz (liquid chicken fat) is kept on the table to give the vampires heartburn if they get through the garlic defense.
- Feasting with the Puritans:
In England, along time ago, there were people called Pilgrims who were very strict about making everyone observe the Sabbath and cooked food without any flavor and that sort of thing, and they decided to go to America, where they could enjoy Freedom to Nag. The other people in England said, "Glad to see the back of them." In America, the Pilgrims tried farming, but they couldn't get much done because they were always putting their best farmers in the stocks for crimes like Suspicion of Cheerfulness. The Indians took pity on the Pilgrims and helped them with their farming, even though the Indians thought that the Pilgrims were about as much fun as teenage circumcision. The Pilgrims were so grateful that at the end of their first year in America they invited the Indians over for a Thanksgiving meal. The Indians, having had some experience with Pilgrim cuisine during the year, took the precaution of taking along one dish of their own. They brought a dish that their ancestors had learned from none other than Christopher Columbus, who was known to the Indians as "the big Italian fellow." The dish was spaghetti carbonara - made with pancetta bacon and fontina and the best imported prosciutto. The Pilgrims hated it. They said it was "heretically tasty" and "the work of the devil" and "the sort of thing foreigners eat." The Indians were so disgusted that on the way back to their village after dinner one of them made a remark about the Pilgrims that was repeated down through the years and unfortunately caused confusion among historians about the first Thanksgiving meal. He said, "What a bunch of turkeys!"