Sunday, June 1, 2003

Cincinnati chili? Or spaghetti Bolognese?


Unserious writer Calvin Trillin talks about his romance with regional fare

By Polly Campbell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Calvin Trillin, journalist, enthusiastic eater and funny food writer, was in town in late May promoting his new book Feeding a Yen (Random House; $22.95).

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Calvin Trillin eats lunch at Dixie Chili in Covington.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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It's a return to food writing for him, after almost 20 years - since he wrote the books that made up the Tummy Trilogy.

Where to take Trillin for lunch was a heavy decision, of course, but in the end, we had to eat chili. (I first heard of Cincinnati chili 30 years ago reading Trillin's essay about it in his first book, American Fried.)

We checked out Dixie Chili in Covington, where they do six-ways (the sixth is chopped garlic). He hadn't had Cincinnati chili since writing that piece, and he was ready.

After taking off his tie and admiring the delicate way the chili assembler fluffed the shredded cheese, Trillin dug into his six-way, polishing it off in the manner of someone who refers to himself as "A Big Hungry Boy, as they say in Kentucky."

He approved of the garlic. ("Everything's better with garlic. Cornflakes are better with garlic.") He did wonder if in some other city, "wouldn't this be called spaghetti Bolognese or pasta with meat sauce?" Later, over a dish of mint chocolate-chip ice cream, I asked Trillin a few questions.

Question: The theme of your most recent book is your "Register of Frustration and Deprivation." What are some of the top foods on that list?

Answer: The theme came to me when I was writing the first piece, about pimentos de Padron, as served in Galicia in Spain. I've never had pimentos de padron outside of Spain. I've never come across boudin (a Cajun rice and pork sausage) outside of southern Louisiana, and never found a good posole (hearty Mexican soup) restaurant in New York. The "Register" is both about how much I yearn for a food, and how hard it is to get, a sort of supply and demand question.

But I don't yearn in the way to think, "They ought to open a posole restaurant here." It wouldn't taste the same, even if you could get it.

Q: The theme of your first book, "American Fried," was your frustration when traveling and being steered to restaurants serving "continental cuisine." How much has that changed in the last 30 years?

A: There are still people who would send you to what I called in that book La Casa de la Maison House. Slightly hipper people would send you to what I call in this book "sleepy" restaurants, where everything is served on a bed of something.

But there's been a big change in American attitude toward eating out that took place roughly in the 70s. Provincial Americans who once judged themselves by standards of New York have gotten to see the legitimacy of their home territory. Plus, people lost their deference to Europeans.

Then, of course, you had this wonderful change in the immigration laws in 1965. It took a while for that to take, for there to be enough of different immigrant groups so they had to feed each other ...

In a new town, I say always find out what groups of people are there, and lean toward groups who have at least two representatives in the city government. I was recently in St. Louis and ate in a Bosnian restaurant, because St. Louis has the biggest Bosnian population outside Bosnia.

Q: Do you think you started something by writing about regional, vernacular food?

A: I only did it for my own reasons. I just thought: "Wouldn't it be interesting to write about people in Cincinnati arguing about chili, or going to the Breaux Bridge crawfish festival to write about Cajuns, and their problems, in a lighter way."

The difference was that most writing about food then was done about fine dining, and done in an Inspector General way about what was correct. I couldn't have written that way if I'd wanted, because I didn't know anything about it.

I've never written a serious piece about food. I suppose, in the end, I don't think of it as a serious subject. To me, it's always been a way of making jokes.

Q: Another of your writing themes is your various attempts to get your daughters, Abigail and Sarah, to move back to New York from the West Coast. (Trillin's wife, Alice, a sensible and always affectionately-drawn presence in his books, died of cancer on Sept. 11, 2001.) Any luck?

A: Yes, I got one of them back. Sarah is living in New Jersey. Abigail is still in California (with his 13-month-old granddaughter). Sarah and I have decided not to put any overt pressure on her except in the pages of the New Yorker.

E-mail pcampbell@enquirer.com




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