“For all of his hu­mour, writer Calvin Trillin has some great lessons for food lovers – like don’t be a slave to trends if they get in the way of a good meal.”

The Guardian - Cook - - Comment - By Sarah Cham­ber­lain Sarah Cham­ber­lain is a so­cial his­to­rian and food writer based in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia; @s.i.cham­ber­lain

Avery im­por­tant life les­son: there are times and places when it is un­wise to be too friendly to bar­tenders. Namely, right be­fore a big meal out with friends. If you’re too nice, you’ll get free shots on top of the drink you al­ready had, and then what are you sup­posed to do – not drink them?

Fast-for­ward 20 min­utes, you’re sit­ting in the restau­rant, and the buzz from the shot has hit, and your friends in­sist on mul­ti­ple bot­tles of wine to go with the many dishes they’ve or­dered. And who are you to say no?

I con­fess that I don’t re­mem­ber any­thing spe­cific about the dishes that fol­lowed – only that there was a lot of it and it was very rich. I felt like I was watch­ing a con­certo played by a wildly tal­ented pi­anist, but with three ex­tra sur­prise move­ments, and en­core af­ter en­core in re­sponse to stand­ing ova­tions I couldn’t hear. As the per­for­mance went on, tipsi­ness segued into drunk­en­ness and sated gave way to stuffed. As I crunched a hand­ful of antacids be­fore bed, I thought: “Calvin Trillin would get a laugh out of this.”

Trillin has writ­ten more than 30 books in his 50-year ca­reer, rang­ing from nov­els to po­lit­i­cal verse to jour­nal­ism. But my favourite works of his are three books of hu­mor­ous es­says on food from the 1970s and 1980s: Amer­i­can Fried; Alice, Let’s Eat, and Third Help­ings.

In his food writ­ing, Trillin ex­hibits the kind of ob­ses­sive be­hav­iour any food lover will recog­nise, but to a much higher power. In one story he buys and eats a plane pic­nic of caviar, stuffed cold breast of veal, paté, and pra­line cheese­cake (among other dishes) washed down with Puligny-Mon­tra­chet (move over, M&S train pic­nics). An­other time he or­ders spe­cial­ties from around the US, in­clud­ing bar­be­cue from Kansas City and tamales from New Mex­ico, by air freight for a party to show his New Yorker friends what they’re miss­ing. This ob­ses­sive­ness doesn’t al­ways lead to de­li­cious­ness – in one story he drags his wife Alice to the state of Ver­mont for a buf­fet din­ner fea­tur­ing wild game, which turns out to be trays full of non­de­script pieces of meat dis­tin­guished only by colour-coded tooth­picks.

It is be­cause Trillin loves food so much that he’s un­afraid to punc­ture pre­ten­sion. On a trip to Eng­land he con­demns for­mal restau­rants that de­cided “that the way to pre­pare so­phis­ti­cated food was to stuff some­thing with some­thing … then to ob­scure the scene of the crime with a heavy, lava-like sauce”. He refers to these bas­tardi­s­a­tions of Es­coffier’s great­est hits as “Stuff-Stuff with Heavy”, and the restau­rants that serve them as “Mai­son de La Casa House”. But Trillin isn’t a re­verse snob – he ap­pre­ci­ates a red mul­let soup at a French bistro in Lon­don just as much as south­ern fried chicken or a Kansas City bar­be­cue.

His rel­ish of the ab­surd ex­tends to his lan­guage – he is a mas­ter of the vivid sim­ile. He de­scribes his gas­tro­nom­i­cally un­ad­ven­tur­ous daugh­ter who hap­pens to love roast squab as be­ing “like a mort­gage of­fi­cer who, be­ing sober and cau­tious in every other way, sees noth­ing pe­cu­liar about prac­tic­ing voodoo on al­ter­nate Thurs­days”.

He also in­vents whole con­cepts, or at least names them – I have cer­tainly been guilty of cit­ing Alice’s Law of Com­pen­satory Cash­flow, which states that if you in­tended to spend money on some­thing ex­pen­sive but didn’t in the end, that money is now a wind­fall that can – nay, should – be spent on some­thing else.

For all of his hu­mour, Trillin has some great lessons for food lovers. It’s im­por­tant to bal­ance ob­ses­sive­ness with self-aware­ness. Don’t be a slave to trends when they get in the way of a good meal. Some things that might sound good in prin­ci­ple will ac­tu­ally turn out to be ter­ri­ble, and vice versa. And I’d be ly­ing if I said I didn’t spend my hol­i­days plan­ning meals the way Trillin does when he goes to Mar­tinique with his wife, like a gen­eral or­ga­niz­ing a cam­paign. One must max­i­mize the op­por­tu­ni­ties to eat well, af­ter all.

Oh, and if you’ve spent the last para­graphs seething over the waste of my pished din­ner, I can re­as­sure you that at least I was con­scious the entire time. I have a friend who went out for a fancy din­ner, only to get so drunk be­fore­hand that he fell asleep in the restau­rant’s toi­lets.

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