An Ode to Calvin Trillin

I can go long swaths of time without thinking about Calvin Trillin, which is a shame. His work appears in the New Yorker only occasionally, and I usually finish reading the piece wanting more but am forced to wait. I remember reading About Alice, his ode to his deceased wife and constant character in his work, when it first was published in the magazine. It was a difficult time for me. A beloved coworker of mine was slowly dying of a rare tumor in his brain. I had just gone to visit him and only a week or so later he was gone. At the same time, my aunt, the matriarch that held together my large, boisterous Irish family together, also lingered in the hospital, having developed melanoma that when undetected long enough for it to be too late. Two weeks later, she too would die shortly after I visited her hospital room. In between these deathbed visits, one evening, a friend who was studying to be a massage therapist came over to practice on Aaron and me. While my friend worked on Aaron in the other room, I read the piece on Alice, silently crying, hoping the people in the next room wouldn’t notice, so I wouldn’t have to explain. Much of Trillin’s writing makes me laugh out loud. I don’t mean in the way that book blurbs now say ‘laugh-out-loud funny,’ or god forbid LOL, but real guffaws and snorts. So when About Alice revealed him at his weakest and most vulnerable, just when I was at a weak and vulnerable spot myself, it hit me hard.

I picked up a copy of Trillin’s Third Helpings while in NYC for Book Expo. I had made a pilgrimage to Kitchen Arts & Letters, a mecca for me and many other cookbook enthusiasts, in the Upper East Side. If you don’t know this store and you love cooking and cookbooks, get thee there now. It’s for people serious about cooking. It’s rumored that the city’s and even country’s best chefs go there to merely look at pictures in cookbooks in other languages that they can’t read. As a cookbook junky, you can understand my excitement. Matt, who has worked there for 20 years, recently bought the place from Nach Waxman, who opened the store in 1983. I introduced myself upon entering the store and found him an eager and enthusiastic handseller. Watching his interactions with regulars and new time customers, I could see why this store has thrived.

I spent about an hour there, perusing books, talking myself off that ledge of buying several hundred dollars of cookbooks that I can’t afford nor carry throughout the city. Instead, I limited myself to a copy of issue two of Cherry Bombe, a magazine for women in the culinary world, and an old copy of Third Helpings, by Calvin Trillin, which is now part of a collection called The Tummy Trilogy (the title makes me groan each time I see it—seriously, who made that decision). It’s perfect for train reading, each essay about 8 to 10 pages. He runs the gamut from investigating the history of Buffalo chicken wings to collecting shellfish lore at the Georgetown, DE Volunteer Fire Company’s annual all-male oyster eat and dance (yep, it still exists) to sampling everything he can get his hands on on a trip to Hong Kong.

There are so many great one-liners, I had a hard time choosing an example: “In New York, there are people — some of them members of my own family — who find it odd that someone wants to eat four or five Chinese meals in a row; in China, I often reminded them, there are a billion or so people who find nothing odd about it at all.” The man delights his family, eating, and writing about his family and eating. I read his most recent essay on the Delta Hot Tamale Festival in a January New Yorker with much delight. His enthusiasm for food hasn’t diminished and he still has the ability to find the best in the people he meets in his research. Everyone is quirky without being a caricature, which many writers have a hard time avoiding.

What I so enjoy about Trillin’s writing is his ability to poke fun of both the characters he meets and often the reader, but you never feel like he’s laughing at you. In a great interview with George Plimpton at the Paris Review, Trillin was commenting on the funniest person working at the New Yorker and said, “Johnny never seemed to think it was odd that the funniest person on the magazine was someone who didn’t write anything. He was very Irish, of course, and someone once told me that in Ireland a writer is a failed talker.” Let’s hope that Trillin continues to fail at talking.

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