Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Tummy Trilogy

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of The Tummy Trilogy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994).

In the 1970s, Calvin Trillin had my dream job. He wrote a column for The New Yorker called "U.S. Journal," in which he talked about people and food around the country. Actually, that's not strictly accurate. He wrote about eating around the country, about the joy of driving anywhere and everywhere and finding something to eat.

Just this past Saturday night, Marie and the girlchild and I were having supper with our friend David at a little Southern place called Sweet Tea's, sort of between Austell and Powder Springs. Their specialties include pork tamales and fried turkey. I said then that the true value of the development of time travel will be the ability to go back and have one more meal or two at beloved restaurants no longer with us. When the technology arrives, I think I'll take The Tummy Trilogy with me on my trip back in time. It was a birthday gift from my friend Neal, who knew intuitively that I would love it. It's an omnibus edition of three books that Trillin released between 1974 and 1983, collecting and expanding his New Yorker essays.

In fact, most of the beloved restaurants mentioned in this book are no longer with us, although I recognize a few, such as Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City, long regarded the best barbecue restaurant in the nation, and the Skyline Chili chain of Cincinnati. The Anchor Bar's still around, but when we were briefly in Buffalo last summer, it was too early on a Sunday for lunch. Indeed, many of the cast of supporting players are no longer with us either. Fats Goldberg, Trillin's friend who was a legend among New York City pizzerias, has gone, as has Trillin's devoted wife Alice.

For a moment, I thought about describing her as "long-suffering," because I couldn't think of a better adjective to describe somebody who was looking forward to some architectural treasure on a family vacation, only to have her husband see whether they could incorporate a sidetrip investigation into a decades-long feud over local fried chicken recipes. Then I remembered I'm that husband. I'm the guy who plotted a trip to visit my wife's Aunt Bertie in Philadelphia around a local sandwich shop of many years' standing, recommended to us by our friend Chris in Florida as making the best cheesesteaks in Ridley Park. And I certainly wouldn't call my wife "long-suffering." That was, after all, a remarkably good cheesesteak. Nobody who stops by the Little Hut can in any way be described as suffering.

Just as lovely as all the stories of crawfish festivals in New Orleans and crabcakes in Baltimore is the way that Trillin's cast and storylines intersect and weave through his narratives. I actually found it difficult to read favorite passages to Marie, because the little character pieces that shine so brightly keep leaving lingering shadows on future stories. There's a beautiful little sequence about his daydream assignment to show Chairman Mao around the dozen best restaurants in New York which must be carefully plotted around his daughter's insistence on eating nothing but bagels. Even the daydream job rang true; practically every new dining experience I have is accompanied by my wish that I could get my father to come try it, even if my mother, who also eats nothing but bagels, would make some embarrassing crack. Eleven years ago, I took them to Paul's in Lexington, Georgia, which serves up either the best or the second-best barbecue in the state, depending on what mood I'm in, and she asked whether their cole slaw was like Chic-Fil-A's.

It's a magnificent book. I laughed all the way through it. I was left so ravenously hungry on occasion that I had to put it down. I am also left so envious that I could weep. I want this job. I only sort of know restaurants in North Georgia and around Nashville. I want to travel the country and learn everything and spread the word about how imperative it is that we avoid those La Maison de la Casa House places that exist only for dimwitted adult children to take their parents on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, and how we should instead eat only at those places we wanted to go after fourteen months in the army. Somebody give me this job. I'll write every single day, I won't call in sick, I'll eat enormous amounts of chili, and I don't require an exorbitant salary. Marie, let's eat!

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