Calvin Trillin: court jester of the gourmet writers' circuit

After some research he had been able to ascertain that I was an enthusiast rather than an expert - ''glutton'' is a word that has occasionally been used by the unkind. . . .

Calvin Trillin m

Taking him solely at his printed word, one might suspect that Calvin Trillin is a fat boy who grew up to be a smart aleck. A hungry man's smart aleck.

No, Trillin seems to have been born not only with a silver spoon in his mouth - but with something tasty on that spoon. Like lobster bisque or Buffalo, N.Y.-style chicken wings.

He is one of America's sharpest political wits, who has also made a name for himself hilariously chronicling America's food habits - and it's easy to imagine him at the dinner table. There his sits: Sandwiched between truly serious gourmands, barbecue sauce splattered on his shirt, he gleefully bangs his spoon on the table, denounces conservatives everywhere, and orders up third helpings of hot Italian sausage with fried peppers, hold the mustard.

Trillin is not the kind of man easily buffaloed. When all those around him are losing their heads and cozying up to Reaganomics or whispering to the waiter ''Yes, I believe I will have a second helping of the New Zealand wood spinach with virgin-press olive oil vinaigrette dressing, thank you for asking,'' Trillin holds his own.

He is a gastronomic libertarian, championing the rights of Americans to eat and enjoy their native foodstuffs. It's dinner-time policy based on pizza, chili dogs, oyster loaves, ''dirty'' rice, and Buffalo chicken wings.

And there are several statutes: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of third helpings seems to be a cardinal rule. So is ''Eat the local speciality'' - never at a restaurant called ''Hauf Brau Cafe: Italian Cuisine, Seafood.'' Never eat any English cooking, particularly anything quaintly called ''Aunt Becky's Kneecap.'' And, above all, Never utter the words ''Oh, let's just eat at the hotel.'' Those are fighting words and can put Trillin ''off his feed.''

Trillin is a tough cookie. Having researched (his own word) the eating habits and haunts of Americans, it takes a lot to put him ''off his feed.'' In the 20 years he has been writing for The New Yorker magazine, Trillin has compiled a lifetime's worth of eating information and recycled it in his books ''American Fried'' and ''Alice, Let's Eat.'' Typical tidbits include: ''No place that has spectacular crawfish is out of the way.'' ''I once wronged the state of Kentucky , but compared with the Kentucky Fried Chicken people, I am an innocent.'' And ''Why would anyone want to get away from a city that has a thousand Chinese restaurants?''

Those kinds of food wisecracks won the satirist accolades by the plateful. New York Magazine called Trillin ''our funniest food writer.'' The New Republic honored him as ''a classic American humorist.'' The Advocate of Baton Rouge, La. , baldly put him ''right up there with Woody Allen.''

In his latest book (the last, he swears, of the ''tummy trilogies''), Trillin goes one better. ''Third Helpings'' is an expanded eating travelogue. In it, he points out the perils and pleasures of eating in Japan (''I was there on an expense account. I learned to say 'Thank you,' and 'receipt.' ''). And he explains why one must avoid club food at all costs: ''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.'' He also vows to write the definitive history of a Louisiana restaurant called Didee's ''or to eat an awful lot of baked duck and dirty rice trying.''

But most of all Trillin lobbies hard to have the national Thanksgiving dish changed from turkey to spaghetti carbonara, a campaign sparked ''partly by my belief that turkey is basically something college dormitories use to punish students for hanging around Sunday.'' ''How refreshing,'' says the author ''to hear sports announcers call some annual tussle the Spaghetti Carbonara Day Classic.'' Besides, he says candidly, ''I happen to love spaghetti carbonara.''

Trillin's taste in food runs to the heavy. ''There is no question that Romanian-Jewish food is heavy,'' he writes. ''One meal is equal in heaviness, I would guess, to eight or nine years of steady mungbean eating.'' Nouvelle cuisine restaurants Trillin refuses to enter without ''strapping a flask of heavy cream to my calf.'' One of the great laments of his life is that there are no Italian West Indies. Trillin dreams of some little island called ''Santo Prosciutto,'' the perfect place to ''soak up sunshine and olive oil. . . .''

How does Trillin get away with this? In a world full of hungry amateurs willing to make a good living writing wise cracks about hollandaise sauce and nouvelle cuisine, Trillin has risen to the top like cream.

He is modest about his achievements: ''I've never been what you'd call a 'grown-up' writer. I don't have a lot of (food) expertise. I don't know what a proper Beef Wellington is or what an improper Beef Wellington is. I don't really have any interest in writing about that. Well, not the way a gourmet would.''

Trillin confesses he cannot even cook and admits that most ''real'' food critics must think of him ''as a sort of court jester.'' He imagines them saying such complimentary things as: ''Well, Trillin's OK. He's sort of writing about hamburgers and joking, and he's not really a threat to anybody.''

''No, this is really a sideline for me,'' says the author, who insists that his real job is simply being a reporter.

After graduating from Yale, where he majored in English, Trillin worked as a reporter at Time magazine. Several years later, he moved over to the New Yorker. He has been there ever since, happily cranking out his US Journal once every three weeks, spending his summers in Nova Scotia editing his books and ''eating homemade blueberry pie.'' In his spare time he writes a regular commentary column for The Nation called ''Uncivil Liberties,'' in which he spouts off about injustices occuring outside the kitchen. If Trillin is a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, it's presumably because he ate the sheep first.

''I think I just fell naturally into writing about the sort of eating people actually like rather than what they're supposed to like,'' he says. ''Partly it was a way of comic relief. I really didn't want to do another controversy over the firing of a librarian or whether an old building should be torn down to make way for a shopping center. Besides, I had basically become a traveling salesman, doing my research for US Journal, and was virtually always in a strange city 1 week out of 3. And I started looking at places to eat out of self-preservation so I wouldn't always have to eat at the hotel, or in that restaurant I call 'La Maison de la Casa.' ''

''La Maison de La Casa actually makes English cooking look good,'' Trillin explains. He defines the notorious restaurant as deriving its notion of continental cuisine ''from the Continental Trailways bus company.'' Trillin still chuckles at this line.

In fact, Trillin chuckles a lot at his own jokes. It's an endearing quality coming from this portly, polite man in a rumpled Burberry's raincoat. It's a far cry from the image of the cranky, overweight food shopper on his book jacket. ''The author in midst of research'' says the line below the picture, and there is Trillin leaning on a deli counter in button-down shirt and tweed hat, sort of glaring at the camera and clutching a loaf of French bread.

In real life Trillin is much more mild and much less bulky than the photo indicates, although he insists that ''the persona of this cheerful glutton isn't too terribly far from the truth.'' Sitting here in gray flannels and tweed jacket and speaking with traces of the well-educated Eastern seaboard accent that he scorns as sounding like ''someone who just ate his way out of case of Skippy chunk-style,'' Trillin doesn't actually look the part of a glutton at all.

His US Journal pieces, he says, were not meant to be folksy or even humorous, but rather were an attempt to ''write about America without emphasizing politics or government.'' Topics have included librarian firings, local religious sects in Dutch with their town fathers, and nearly anything that smacks of racial prejudice. ''Controversy within a context,'' is how Trillin likes to describe his reporting pieces. And he is dead serious about it.

''I suppose my Nation columns are the easiest to write. It's a lot harder to write a straight reporting piece, not because it's funny or serious but because in a reporting piece you're responsible for the truth. If you don't have your reporting right, you can't write as if you really know what you're talking about.''

Trillin is also a dedicated craftsman. In spite of a tone that usually sounds as if he thought up his lines while in the shower, he admits he wrestles with the challenges any writer faces.

''The hardest part of writing is deciding what goes next and what's going at the end. And most of the problems come with the transitional stuff. But once the structure is decided, you simply write your sentences as well as you can write them. If you write them enough times, eventually you will write it as well as you can write it. It just follows.''

Trillin trying to be serious comes out sounding a lot like Trillin being funny. If pressed he reveals that he was once part of a two-man comedy team during his high school years in Kansas City, Mo. (a town Trillin maintains might be the ''Barbequed-Mutton Capital of the World''). ''Oh, it wasn't very serious. My partner did foreign accents that I later realized went over so well because nobody in our high school had ever heard a foreign accent.'' He says he had no thought of being a writer, but sort of ''backed into it. Although I always figured I would do something with words rather than numbers. I mean, I always knew I would not be a businessman.'' A trait that Trillin possibly got from his father.

''Our father told us he made a living playing pinochle down at the market,'' Trillin says with a laugh. ''Actually he owned four grocery stores. But he didn't like it, and after the war he sold them. My sister and I were mortified, we were the only children in Kansas City whose father didn't work for a living. But then he bought a restaurant - which is not really where I got my interest in food. I think he owned that restaurant so he could write two-line poems on the menu every day at lunch, mostly they were about pie. I think the shortest one was 'Don't sigh. Eat Pie.' But he used to rhyme them with all sorts of things like, 'the evening is nigh' or 'about to fry.' ''

About his own family, Trillin is just as loyal. He claims that his family (wife, Alice, and daughters, Sarah and Abigail) are ''the last nuclear family left living in Greenwich Village.'' His wife, he confesses, has ''a weird predilection for limiting our family to three meals a day,'' and his daughters are the archetypal picky eaters. This is particularly true of Sara, Trillin says , who refuses to enter a Chinese restaurant without a bagel in her hand, ''just in case.'' Despite these gustatory differences, Trillin remains a devoted family man and isn't shy about including references to them in his work. ''I think writers should use what they have. And my life is centered on my family.'' Trillin's commentary columns are often in the form of a family dialogue. '' 'Daddy, they said in school that you were a dupe of the Communists,' '' is not an atypical line.

''I just think in those type of rhythms,'' says Trillin with a shrug. Then he says it straight: ''I think probably more than any other kind of writing, humorous writing is not a learned thing. You either have a funny turn of mind, or you don't. It's always been more natural for me to write in a light way rather than in a heavy way. I've never been able to write 'whither this,' or 'world that.' I don't know how. I know that what I write isn't meant to be put in a time capsule for future ages. . . . But I am still worried that somebody is going to read one of my articles, put it down, and forget to come back.''

Trillin tells a little story about a man named Murray who wrote a funny piece about being a delegate to a Democratic convention. The man's wife read it and said, ''Murray, you are not a serious man.'' ''I think,'' says Trillin with a sly smile, ''that is a fair comment for me, too.''

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