Haute Cuisine Over Easy
"I'm not a grown-up food writer," insists Calvin Trillin. Though author of two books on eating--American Fried and his latest, Alice, Let's Eat--Trillin disavows any professional knowledge of food or of food-writing. Indeed, he dismisses culinary coups de plume as "boring and not my field. I can't write a straight story about food."
Why the food books, then?
Matter of survival, says Trillin. Since 1967 he has traveled the country writing a series of articles for the New Yorker called "U.S. Journal"--working as a sort of pulp Charles Kuralt. His food books recount the struggles of a travelling person to get something decent to eat.
"I write serious stuff, but not about food," Trillin says, smiling, while in Cambridge recently to publicize his sixth book. With mild eyes the color of swimming pools and a moderate waistline, in person he hardly seems the insatiate food ogre of his books. "I take on a persona as a glutton in my food books," he explains shyly.
His persona as glutton serves as the vehicle for much of the humor in Alice, Let's Eat. In this rambling, anecdotal frolic, Trillin regales us with stories of domestic spats that have arisen in his family due to his gastronomical ardor. When traveling, he constantly gets into arguments with his wife, Alice, about whether to see the sights or eat. Trillin can't understand Alice's "strange fixation on having only three meals a day."
When they are in Martinique, for example, Alice wants to visit the famous volcano that destroyed an entire city. Trill in, lagging, wheedles her into stopping at a restaurant called Le Colibri, to partake of their calalou des crabes. He rationalizes the detour both to himself and to a skeptic Alice:
"I just hope you'll be able to walk," Alice said, watching me go after the second course--a torte made with minced conch. I knew she meant nothing by the remark. She wanted to protect me from overeating in the same way I wanted to protect her from a volcano that had once erupted and killed thirty thousand people."
With Alice as his almost constant companion, Trillin samples country ham in Sulphur Well, Ky., savors andouille gumbo turned out by the Jaycees of Laplace, La., tastes the loup en cro*ute at Paul Bocuse's world-renowned restaurant in Lyons. Throughout all, the tongue-in-cheek Trillin philosophizes that "Marriage, as I have often remarked, is not merely sharing one's fettucine but sharing the burden of finding the fettucine restaurant in the first place."
Trillin says the subject has a lot to do with the way it seems sensible to him to write it. In his 15 years at the New Yorker, Trillin has reported on a wide range of subjects. Murders. A Chinese town in California bought by a Hong-Kong developer. Integration of Atlanta schools in the fall of '61. The idea of foodwriting, he said, came to him as a sort of "comic relief."
"It would be silly and inappropriate for me to write about food the way I wrote about those stories," he comments.
Whom does he personally admire as a writer?
Joseph Mitchell, whom he calls "the best writer at the New Yorker," Mitchell, he says, can write about people without seeming to examine them or condescend to them. "The sentences seem to have appeared there on magic slates--the whole process looks effortless."
Trillin approaches this kind of "effortless" writing about people in the section of Alice, Let's Eat where he discusses Fats Goldberg. In 12 pages he creates a marvelously warm and funny character portrayal of the New York City pizza baron. Fats, we learn, has a mania for inventing crazy and impracticable schemes, such as an early-morning catering service called Brunch a la Goldberg, and a "pizza pusher" device made of plastic that would allow someone to eat a piece of hot pizza without burning his fingers. Best whacky idea of all, perhaps, was for Fats (who used to weigh about 400 pounds, hence the nickname) to go on a lecture tour, under the billing of "The Thin Evangelist."
Alice, Let's Eat is not a book by a "grownup" food writer. Its author's spontaneity and childlike view of the world save it from being tedious in the manner of most food books. Instead, Trillin has written a witty and trenchant mishmash of culinary anecdotes and satire--one that will not grow stale upon a second or third helping.