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Calvin Trillin's food writing
October 3, 2010 11:28 AM   Subscribe

Calvin Trillin has attempted to compile a short history of the buffalo wing, stalked the barbecued mutton, and reported on crawfish eating contests in Louisiana.  

Those three essays are collected in his magisterial The Tummy Trilogy. He is also the author of "By Meat Alone", "Speaking of Soup", "Dissed Fish", "Local Bounty", and "Don't Mention It"
posted by Joe Beese (45 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
One of my favorite bits by Trillin, and with the exception of Jim Harrison's work, about my favorite piece of writing about food period. Don't Mention It.
posted by timsteil at 11:34 AM on October 3, 2010


Based on my experience in New Orleans, every citizen is constantly and vigorously competing in an undeclared, unending crawfish contest. The town is littered with crawfish corpses -- they cover the ground and, for some reason, are often hung from fences. I imagine an actual mudbug crawling through New Orleans feeling like Haing S. Ngor during his escape scene in The Killing Fields.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:53 AM on October 3, 2010 [10 favorites]


Don't read any of these pieces without food in the house!

I'm also a big fan of the crime essays in Killings, many (all?) of which first appeared in The New Yorker.

Trillin is fabulous.
posted by OmieWise at 12:06 PM on October 3, 2010


Is it just me, or does lamb and mutton have a distinctive weird flavor to it? I enjoy a bit of lamb ground up with other meat(s) to make a gyro, but on its own sheep just tastes funny to me.
posted by Oriole Adams at 12:19 PM on October 3, 2010


Is it just me, or does lamb and mutton have a distinctive weird flavor to it?

Distinctive, yes. Weird? No.
posted by jonmc at 12:34 PM on October 3, 2010


The single best sandwich I ever had in my life was some leftover warm roast leg of lamb on peasant bread. No butter, no sauce, no mustard: just lamb and bread and the natural juices.

OTOH, I don't think I could eat lamb or mutton every day. It's definitely a distinctive flavour, and everyone has a somewhat different point where "Delicious!" switches to "Not on your life".
posted by maudlin at 1:01 PM on October 3, 2010


Mmmm, Meatfilter.
posted by louche mustachio at 1:03 PM on October 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


I think Feeding a Yen more or less counts as the fourth volume in the Tummy Trilogy.
posted by RogerB at 1:04 PM on October 3, 2010


Lamb does have its own taste. Especially when cooked with red wine, shallots, rosemary and mint, or maybe simmered in a spicy yogurt sauce.

So, uh, put me down for "delicious."
posted by louche mustachio at 1:07 PM on October 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


I enjoyed the Tummy Trilogy when I read it years ago. Trillan's one of my favorite food writers, so I should track down Finding a Yen. Thanks for sharing!
posted by dragonplayer at 1:09 PM on October 3, 2010


Love Trillin.

Back when I was a waitress at an Irish pub, I heard a version of the creation story for Buffalo wings that began with a blizzard during the day that caused a food delivery to be cancelled. The neighborhood patrons in the bar that night wanted something to eat, and there was no way to get to the grocery store, so the bartender rummaged around and found a bunch of trimmed chicken wing tips that were being saved to make stock, fried them up, and then tossed them in the hot sauce they used for the Bloody Marys. The celery was also on the bar for the Bloody Marys, and the blue cheese was...well, I don't know what that was supposed to be for.

Anyway, I always really liked this story of improvisation with limited ingredients, brought about by the magic of a blizzard, so the more accurate versions will always underwhelm me.
posted by Miko at 1:14 PM on October 3, 2010


Excellent timing; I just made my first batch of wings of the football season. Baked (a compromise because I hate frying things in my house), with Frank's Red Hot and served with celery and blue cheese (never ever ranch).
posted by misskaz at 1:51 PM on October 3, 2010


Is it just me, or does lamb and mutton have a distinctive weird flavor to it?

Is lamb an exotic food? I grew up eating it, usually at holidays, always thought of it in the same category as Turkey.
posted by octothorpe at 2:03 PM on October 3, 2010


I've always admired his early profiles, especially of minor political figures. He described details and wrote about people who were doing interesting things that would otherwise be almost entirely lost to history.

And lamb tastes distinctively delicious. Yum.
posted by Forktine at 2:04 PM on October 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


I was well into adulthood before I ate lamb, and yes, it does have a distinctive flavor: delicious! My gf and I hickory smoked a leg o' over the grill three weeks ago, cut up a third of it for sandwich meat and the other two thirds made chili. I really really regret not making it all into sandwich meat...until I have a bowl of chili, that is.

I'm very annoyed that it's raining right now, since I can't grill in the apartment.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 2:17 PM on October 3, 2010


This is my first exposure to Trillin. Classic introspective navel gazer. For instance, in the Chicken Wing article, he takes over a thousand words to say what it revealed in the last 100 words of the article:

the invention of the Buffalo chicken wing came about because of a mistake—the delivery of some chicken wings instead of the backs and necks that were ordinarily used in making spaghetti sauce. Frank Bellissimo thought it was a shame to use the wings for sauce. “They were looking at you, like saying, ‘I don’t belong in the sauce,’ ” he has often recalled. He implored his wife, who was doing the cooking, to figure out some more dignified end for the wings. Teressa Bellissimo decided to make some hors d’oeuvres for the bar—and the Buffalo chicken wing was born.

The rest is nothing more than fluff.
posted by Doohickie at 2:43 PM on October 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Doohickie, did you seriously read the article and think the success or failure of the "attempt to compile a short history," or the final history compiled, was the point of the thing? I have a hard time imagining how anyone could possibly be that dense. Interviewing a bunch of people and reporting their ideas is "introspective navel-gazing"? Did you actually read the article before dismissing it?
posted by RogerB at 3:16 PM on October 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


It wasn't the last 100 words of the article: there are three more pages after that quoted paragraph.

Trillin's article isn't meant to deliver the definitive answer in as few words as possible: it's a comfortably-paced read about the process of finding things out, even something as recent and relatively trivial as the origins of a regional dish, and about the way the dish is bound up with the cultural identity of people from Buffalo. And if you keep reading the story, you'll find another person -- and culture -- being identified with the origin of the dish.
posted by maudlin at 3:31 PM on October 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


(Sorry, TWO more pages after that paragraph, for a total of three -- THREE!! ahaha!! - pages.)
posted by maudlin at 3:33 PM on October 3, 2010


I suspect Doohickie is not going to like the articles Trillin built around walking from one restaurant to another, full of musings on the neighborhoods and other places and times and menus.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 3:43 PM on October 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Doohickie's take on Moby Dick ... "It's about a guy who chases a whale. Full of fluff. "
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 3:46 PM on October 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


Is it just me, or does lamb and mutton have a distinctive weird flavor to it?

While I find the meat appealing, it's not a flavor that works very well in a broth, for instance. When it starts to get old, it gets funky sooner than some other meats.

That's why Lizzie Borden took an ax, and gave her father forty whacks -- he insisted that the family finish a lamb stew that was getting old.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:02 PM on October 3, 2010


Ah, self-defense then.
posted by wobh at 4:12 PM on October 3, 2010


There's a distinct polite dinner table conversation quality about New Yorker pieces where aimless after-dinner tedium gives way to rambling musings that you are not really supposed to pay close attention to but more or less acknowledge through grunts and nods while you stir your drink and wait for it to finish so you start a monologue of your own. This repeats a few times until everybody finally falls silent and goes home a little tipsy, absorbed in their own thoughts.
posted by eeeeeez at 4:21 PM on October 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


This is my first exposure to Trillin. Classic introspective navel gazer.[...]The rest is nothing more than fluff.

I honestly don't understand this level of dismissiveness. I feel like you and I belong to different worlds, and in mine intellectual engagement in the humanities is valued, and in yours, the efficiency expert is revered. When we have a Taylorism of the heart, mine will break.
posted by OmieWise at 4:50 PM on October 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Lamb (and mutton) is one of the joys of life, something to be savored and cuddled. Sadly, my wife, along with most Japanese people, recoils in terror from it. It's stinky, they say. It's nasty. Usually this is followed by their consumption, with a smile, of natto.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:54 PM on October 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Doohickie, don't dismiss Trillin so fast. He's a writer who is insatiably curious about, and loving of, the world, and who writes in such a way as to maximize the sheer pleasure of reading and to make the reader feel as though you're enjoying the exploration with him. His writings on the death of his (very interesting and accomplished) wife are quite moving, as are his meditations on aging and the growth of his daughters into adults, and then the birth of his grandchildren. His parody and satire are hilarious and sharp, and his political writing well observed. He's written over two dozen books and hundreds (thousands?) of columns and short pieces. In the 20th and 21st centuries, he's been one of the most widely read and widely loved writers in several major outlets, including the New Yorker and The Nation. His subjects range across the USA and he is able to draw meaningful insights from conversations with rich and poor, rural and citified, luminaries and regular folks. I would think that if you went to your library and took out one of the many books by him they no doubt circulate, your opinion would moderate. He's definitely not someone to be dismissed out of hand; I suspect you're judging him on the basis of some style elements which lesser imitators have borrowed and executed poorly, but he's not the borrower, he's the originator. Definitely worth a deeper investigation.
posted by Miko at 5:19 PM on October 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


I just read "Alice, let's eat," last week. Made me want to visit Kansas City for the barbecue. Trillin makes you hungry, and curious.

And his very short book about his late wife, "About Alice," (ISBN-13: 978-1400066155), which Miko mentioned, is wonderful.
posted by goofyfoot at 6:00 PM on October 3, 2010


Hey guys--don't dog on doohickie. I suspect he got to the end of the first page and thought it was the end of the article. I did just that reading it on my phone. It took me a bit to find the "next" link and for a minute I assumed it was the end and I was thinking "That was an oddly matter-of-fact ending."
posted by sourwookie at 6:27 PM on October 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


I just got through the bbq mutton article, and I agree with Trillin wholeheartedly about the KFC as archetype. From what I've seen in China as well as Japan, people really believe that KFC is what fried chicked really is. The shocking thing is that, in both places, there was a local, incredibly delicious variety of fried chicken (in Japan, karaage, in China, there was this street stall near the Wuhan Traffic University side gate that sold pounded flat chicken breasts that, when placed on bread, instantly became the best fried chicken sandwich I've ever had), but somehow, KFC is the image of fried chicken, and it's a damn shame.

I've cooked for a lot of my Japanese friends, and pretty often, I'll get a comment that my food isn't at all like they had thought it would be. They seem shocked that when I grill a burger that there's flavors to the meat (minced garlic, salt, pepper, oregano and basil, if you must know), or that when I make fried chicken, it's not like KFC. Sometimes they're surprised in a good way, but not always.

Or, conversely, when my cousin came to visit for my wedding, and we ended up (due to a confluence of issues) not being able to get him some sushi until we were at the airport to drop him off. To him, sushi in a Japanese airport was the best sushi he'd ever had in his life, and he eats sushi two or three times a month, but in Chicago. Poor guy.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:43 PM on October 3, 2010


To him, sushi in a Japanese airport was the best sushi he'd ever had in his life, and he eats sushi two or three times a month, but in Chicago. Poor guy.

I have to wonder where he's going for sushi in Chicago. We've got some very good places, but they tend not to be the ones everyone goes to. Good point about how sometimes an inferior product can become the gold standard for what a food should be simply out of ubiquity.
posted by me3dia at 7:37 PM on October 3, 2010


sushi in a Japanese airport was the best sushi he'd ever had in his life

We used to go to these cheap little robo-sushi hole-in-the-wall places in Tokyo, like 80 yen a plate, every one of them awesome by American standards. Just don't get stuck behind that guy who grabs every plate off the conveyor belt.

I can't even eat sushi here. It's like bait-flavored gum.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 8:10 PM on October 3, 2010


I'd love to know where they are. One of my wife's sticking points about not living in Chicago was her opinion of the Japanese food there. I don't tend to eat Japanese food when I'm out of the country, but I'm sure my cousin would like to know.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:11 PM on October 3, 2010


Been a long time since I was in Tokyo, but for the most part you could walk a hundred steps into any shopping arcade and find one. There was a nice one just down the street (west?) from Shin-Okubo Station, but like I say, long ago.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 8:28 PM on October 3, 2010


Actually, I meant good sushi in Chicago. I agree about sushi here in Japan. It's everywhere, and it's not bad (not a huge fan, but doable). We just went to Tsukiji last week. Sushi for breakfast might not be my thing, but it was still good.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:18 PM on October 3, 2010


From what I've seen in China as well as Japan, people really believe that KFC is what fried chicked really is.

I think it's more the image of what American fried chicken really is. As you say a bit further on, people in other cultures are perfectly capable of frying some tasty chicken (best fried chicken I ever had was in Bangkok).

And for all the "lamb/mutton is a bit weird tasting" etc. - that's just because it's not an everyday meat for you.
posted by awfurby at 10:36 PM on October 3, 2010


Bad news about American sushi.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 10:48 PM on October 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


What I really miss is okonomoyaki. Haven't ever seen it here.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 10:51 PM on October 3, 2010


Okonomiyaki! Having never been to Japan, I tried to make what sounds like a great dish, from a recipe demonstrated on a VHS video I rented years ago. Now there are several youtubes on making this, so I'll try again.

For y'all who aren't sure about lamb, or for those who love it: take that leg (boneless or not), which has been rubbed with garlic and fresh rosemary and studded with garlic, and put it on a rack. Under the rack, you've layered thin slices of potato and onion and tomato, each layer drizzled with olive oil and a little salt, and maybe some savory or thyme or oregano. Roast it, let it sit, then consume, with maybe a little tzatziki. Heaven!
posted by goofyfoot at 11:26 PM on October 3, 2010


Trillin's essay on Snow's barbecue in Lexington, TX is one of my favorite things he's written about food. Not coincidentally, Snow's also serves the best brisket I've ever eaten.
posted by Gilbert at 2:20 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Snow's barbecue in Lexington, TX

Road trip!
posted by Devils Rancher at 4:07 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Did you actually read the article before dismissing it?

Yes, I did. That was the point- he wrote 900 words before he ever got around to discussing the subject.
posted by Doohickie at 6:05 AM on October 4, 2010


Okay all, after reading the comments.... I will admit, I came in with an agenda: I really did want to know what he would say the origins of the chicken wing were. I am from Buffalo and I wanted to see how the story I heard matched with his. (For the record, my story is slightly different but, considering he went to the source, I now stand corrected.)

The link title, "a short history of the buffalo wing," misled me with respect what I was getting into. Based on the title I thought he would get to the Anchor Bar a lot earlier in his quest. I still say that he spent too much time getting there. Based on the link title and what I was curious about, I expected something like 1.) Anchor Bar; 2.) The wing takes off in Buffalo; 3.)...and the world.

That's not what I got; rather, I got a lot of his experience about his trip to Buffalo which to me was mostly mundane.

All that said, maybe I should read some of the other linked articles where I don't have an agenda going in, and reassess my position.
posted by Doohickie at 6:17 AM on October 4, 2010


It's kind of charming that his reaction to barbecued mutton, after pages of build-up, was "Eh, it was fine." I had that reaction myself when I made a pilgrimage to Owensboro earlier this year. Home-made sour-cream donuts and sugar pie: amazing; burgoo: amazing and really fun to say; barbecued mutton:... eh, it was fine.

Burgoo, burgoo, burgoo
posted by ormondsacker at 9:03 AM on October 4, 2010


Lamb tikka biryani.

That is all.
posted by By The Grace of God at 6:41 AM on October 5, 2010


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