“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.”
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.