Two takes on Calvin Trillin. Food and killing.
1.Trillin is Fillin’
I know Calvin Trillin best as a humorist and food writer. His books American Fried and Alice, Let’s Eat were not just funny but were pretty darned influential in setting the stage for the way we have thought about food over the past couple of decades. American Fried came out in 1974 fer chrissakes.
Admittedly, that’s a few years after Chez Panisse opened in the immediate aftermath of the hippie era on the West Coast, in 1971. And near Boston, a funky little place named Peasant Stock opened in Somerville near Harvard as early as 1970.
But these early birds in the foodie revolution were not blazing the same trail as Trillin. Chez Panisse and Peasant Stock presaged one wing of the yuppie food revolution to come. Chez Panisse was natural, local and organic but nonetheless tasteful. And Peasant Stock, despite its downscale name, was at first only about as ethnic as local star Julia Child, with a menu that included “French-country style wholesome foods like Coq-au-Vin, Bœuf Bourguignon, freshly-made pâté, and cabbage and cheese soup.”
By contrast,Trillin predated another wing of foodie life: ethnic foods of every possible variety, and downscale authenticity wherever it could be found. Jane and Michael Stern, who would gain fame proselytizing for the ethnic and the authentic, did not publish their opus Roadfood until 1979, five years after Trillin waxed rhapsodic over a Kresge’s chili dog,
fried milk with crabmeat in Chinatown,
and, of course, Arthur Bryant’s Kansas City barbecue.
Put another way, countercultural cooking was looking to rise up from the days of dismal brown rice, and sought to polish the rough edges of hippie chow. It was looking for respectability, doing well by doing good in the manner of the late hippie era as it bled into professionalism.
Trillin by contrast was anything but countercultural. He had it made as card-carrying member of the Eastern intellectual elite, writing for The New Yorker and The Nation as early as 1963. So for Trillin there was no need for a status upgrade. Rather, the fun was to be had in a little nostalgie de la boue.
The time was right for both moves. Indeed, as hippies morphed into yuppies the Chez Panisse folks were able to jump the tracks easily, moving to adopt Trillin’s downscale aesthetic when distant enough from their own flirtation with the mud in the late 60s and early 70s.
Today it is all of a piece.
The Red Coach Grill–the very symbol of fine cuisine for suburban families west of Boston in the 1960s
is now an upscale Chinese (and sushi) restaurant.
Here, we see the synthesis of not just two things but three things: the push for the tasteful, the drive for the authentic and the making of money.
2.Trillin and Killin’
While Trillin is best known as a humorist and food writer he has sound reportorial chops, so to speak, as well.
In 1984 he set aside his steak knife, temporarily, and wrote a book of short pieces on murders in America.
It is an interesting companion piece to his food books. In the food books he went off in search of real food and came back with a quite comprehensive report of the terrific things that were out there. At least in my reading, his attempt to do something similar with murder rather than meat loaf is for some reason not quite so comprehensive, and seems to have some blind spots.
The book purports to be as capacious as all America, perhaps in the manner of William Least Heat-Moon’s wonderful Blue Highways, which had appeared two years before. According to the dust jacket “Trillin’s subject . . . is not violence but America–specific people in specific places. Killings, says Trillin ‘is meant to be more about how Americans live than about how some of them die.'”
Sixteen killings–or rather American people–are described. But it’s a funny thing. Most all of the killings are about white people killing, and often being killed. And within that frame there is a serious emphasis on the white working class and, though the term was not widely used then, the white underclass. Jeremiah, Kentucky is the scene of the first: a filmmaker in raw Eastern Kentucky to make a film about the plight of mining communities is shot by a “thin bald man” yelling “get off my land.” But is that all there is too it? A rednecks’ sense of violated territory? Or was it about more, about how the deep-rooted suspicion of outsiders by local folk is rooted in some measure in a parallel “fear of outsiders by people who are guarding reputations or economic interests . . .”
A true story, and a good one. And part of the fabric of America, and American killings, for sure.
But then the book goes on. A drug killing in hard knocks West Chester, Pennsylvania is next up. Then an alcohol-fueled argument between pipeline workers in Iowa that spirals out of control. Then a killing by a Russian defector in California who was active in “Underground Evangelism”, spreading the word of God to counter godless Communism. We visit New Hampshire, where the “son of a lumberjack” and a descendant of “poor French Canadians” is the killer. Family violence in Cleveland, Tennessee among “poor-white country people.” More family violence in the old mill city of Manchester, New Hampshire. More problems with drugs, family issues and Christian thinking in Tennessee. Goings-on in coal mining country in central Pennsylvania.
Do we see a pattern here at all?
The tales comprising America are not limited to coal miners, pipeline workers and sons of lumberjacks. A few deal with the privileged as well, though these cases are about the dysfunction of privileged, not underprivileged whites. That is: the raffish moneyed set in Savannah and Miami–and not, bien sûr, in New York City.
There is one very interesting case involving resettled Hmong refugees in Iowa that has no particular class or race edge to it–it is just a very sad story. And one case involves a Native American, shot by a Hispanic sheriff in New Mexico.
While race is seldom discussed openly in the cases it appears African-Americans do not make an appearance at all. Trillin makes a lame attempt to obliquely address this lack in his introduction.
I once did a piece in Seattle after a white policeman had shot and killed a black armed-robbery suspect: in the controversy that surrounded the shooting, they both because so enveloped by their roles that the incident would have been described in just that way–a White Cop had killed a Black Suspect.
This seems to suggest that a reporter of Trillin’s skills would have been powerless to treat a black-white story in a careful and responsible way–that even he would be powerless against the need to place events in a preordained narrative container. This minimizes his reportorial skills. After all what is good writing of this type other than an attempt to sincerely illuminate something that would otherwise be subject to error and stereotype?
And for that matter even if he felt powerless to write about Black-White issues what about writing just about . . . blacks? Even without whites they are nowhere to be seen, invisible men . . .
In 1980 the black victimization rate exceeded the white victimization rate by over five to one, with the gap relative to offending rates even higher. In both cases they were higher then, at the time of the cases, than they are today.
In one respect Trillin’s reportage is sound. After all, the problems of the white underclass have only recently gotten into the news in a significant way. Charles Murray’s work on Fishtown is relevant, as is the opioid epidemic and high rates of death among older whites.
On the other hand if Trillin were truly aiming for a portrait of America through the lens of killing he appears to have been awfully selective about it. A lot of African-Americans are being killed in America today, as they were when Trillin wrote the book. A fair reckoning of killing in America seems incomplete–and hugely disrespectful to the victims and their loved ones–if their stories are ignored. For a certain kind of New Yorker writer, though, I expect these kinds of things are not said, and that is true today as it was in 1984. Whether that silence is due to an odd interpretation of virtue or simple social embarrassment is still something I have not been able to fully make out.
Despite the notion that American food was “bland” in the 50s and into the 60s, the fact is that while American’s might not have been making fancy food, the quality of the ingredients was so far beyond what we get now from factory farming and monocultures that it’s almost impossible to comprehend. A typical American steak from, say, 60 years ago, was more or less the quality of what you now get spending who knows how much for Kobe beef. Yes, the difference was really that dramatic.
Farmers, in collusion with the government (hah, what else is new), consistently lowered the grading standards for beef over many decades. In fact, even what is now considered a “prime” steak — only 2 to 3 percent of all steak in the country — could have been looked at as mediocre back in the day.
And let’s not forget flavors of fruits and vegetables that actually used to have flavor. So yes, a road side diner plate of grilled steak, mashed potatoes and carrots in 1950 was likely to be entirely delicious, with the steak in the ballpark of what you now go to Peter Luger’s for.
Greed ruins everything in America.