Do you like to read? Eat? Laugh out loud, forcing your beverage of choice through your nose? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions (you talk to your computer screen? weirdo…) and if you have not yet read any of Calvin Trillin’s food essays, get thee promptly to a bookstore or library.
I only wish I had encountered Trillin’s food writing earlier- I feel a retrospective bereavement for all those years I was missing out on it. I had heard of Trillin from working at the bookstore (his Obliviously On He Sails, a poem about the Bush administration, and About Alice were both pretty good sellers for us), but for whatever reason, his food books did not get ordered. I was at the library a few weeks ago browsing the Food/Cookbooks section as I am wont to do, when I came across Feeding a Yen and decided to give it a try.
The common thread in this volume of essays is Trillin’s “Register of Frustration and Deprivation”- a list of food items whose authentic incarnations can only be found regionally, and for which the author pines nostalgically. Each chapter discusses an item on the list- Basque pimientos de Padron, Ecuadorian fanesca, Cajun boudin, and many more. Since the book’s concept strongly involves a sense of place, many of the essays have the element of great travel writing as well, which was a bonus for me.
One of the funniest essays, especially for anyone who is a regular consumer of “food information” online, was New Grub Street, which talked about Chowhound.com‘s self-proclaimed “Alpha Dog” Jim Leff and other New York food writers such as Robert Sietsema (check out his funny but somewhat snob-noxious blog post “Things We Hate: Overused Food Words” in the Village Voice). These writers are a rare breed in that their lives seem to revolve around a bizarre one-upmanship of who can find the best hidden food gems in New York. At one point in the essay, Leff talks about a restaurant that serves amba, an Iraqi mango hot sauce. He intones gravely to Trillin, “It’s not considered available. It’s extremely rare. This might be the rarest single food in town.” (p. 84). I was at Marvin’s house while reading this, and called out “Hey hon? That mango stuff you have in the fridge… is that called amba?” I felt more than a little amused (ok, smug) knowing that less than 15 feet away was an item considered by a New Yorker (the Chowhound Alpha Dog, no less) to be a such a rare and exotic foodstuff!
I am looking forward to checking out Trillin’s other food books- I love his dry wit, and his writing alone is enough to make me add foods to my own Register of Frustration & Deprivation that I haven’t even tried yet (I actually had a dream about pimientos de Padrón after reading that essay!). Alice, Let’s Eat looks like a good one…
Incidentally, Trillin’s book About Alice, a touching and humorous ode to his wife (who died of cancer in 2001), is a beautiful read to get you in the Valentine spirit, or to give as a Valentine’s gift. We listened to it on audiobook (read by Trillin himself) on the way down south and thoroughly enjoyed it.