Monday, November 22, 2010

A Walk with Calvin Trillin

For many, the name Calvin Trillin is synonymous with food writing characterized by a particular voice of deadpan humor. Others are familiar with his work as a longtime contributor to The New Yorker. On a brisk, sunny October morning, it was the allure of having this writer share his enthusiasm for some of his favorite food spots that drew nearly 40 people to a secret meeting spot in the West Village.

The Come Hungry tour, part of the annual New Yorker Festival, is a tough ticket.  A few weeks before, the Friday that tickets went on sale, I sat before my computer ready to do battle with the online system, at noon on the dot. In just a couple of minutes it would be over. I had tried to get these tickets each of the last five years with not even a slim moment of hope before the sold out message appeared on my screen, seemingly the same second they were supposed to be available. The spinning wheel, the processing Web page — this time, I had won the lottery.

Trillin is a man of average height. With droopy cheeks, a bulbous nose, bushy, unkempt eyebrows and hunched shoulders, he resembles a St. Bernard. His blue eyes seem twinged with sadness. If you passed him on the street, he would seem unremarkable. It is his writing that makes people take note, his dry sense of humor that emanates from the words on the page, a humor that makes you laugh out loud while reading; to be a part of this tour was to translate that to life.

The tour took us around Trillin’s home base in the West Village and nearby Soho and Chinatown. Dressed for the event in jeans, hiking boots and a checked blue and white button-down shirt covered with a navy windbreaker, he guided us from place to place with his stuttered gait, starting at Murray’s Cheese Shop and ending at Chinese hand-pulled noodle shop Sheng Wang. Trillin shared his knowledge of each place and paused to share anecdotes along the way.

Trillin is the author of several books, including the classic Trummy Trilogy. Although he focuses on general reporting at the magazine now and says he does only about one food-related article a year now, the desire to share his love of food and the pride he feels for the places in his neighborhood seems not to have waned. Even the cap Trillin sported — Bourgeois Miracles in Meat Since 1891 (a meat market in Louisiana) — spoke to a life closely tied to food. As we passed Grom gelato on the way to Murray’s, Trillin said "This one's so expensive my daughter made her children finish their ice cream."

At Murray's we were given samples of Pecorino Toscano cheese and a spicy and mild Soppressata. "Murray's is a great example of someone taking an old store and modernizing it," Trillin said.

Our small herd went next to Blue Ribbon Bakery on Downing Street. Here we tried savory matzoh crackers, crisps the size of a dinner plate covered in salt, olive oil, rosemary and Parmesan cheese. For as thin and delicious as they were though, it was a tough finish beyond half of the round. According to Trillin these crackers keep for a long time and "If matzo tasted like savory matzo crackers, the Jews never would've left Egypt."

On the steps of a church not far away, we were given green sandwiches from an unnamed store in Chinatown. Trillin discovered these randomly and in fact had no idea what kind of greens were between the thick sesame bread. In an unintentionally comic way, he asked if anyone on the tour knew, but no one seemed to have the answer. The greens were dressed in a bit of oil, but were otherwise plain. Not a bad sandwich, but one that might benefit from a bit more seasoning.

On we went to Grandaisy Bakery for squares of potato pizza. Unexpectedly, this was crunchy and more like a potato chip pizza.
We walked a bit more before receiving our pieces of cauliflower pizza, which most people seemed to like a lot better. Trillin mentioned that the bakery sometimes also has a great celery root pizza.

At Despaña in Soho we tried the signature tortilla, which has some chorizo and a mix of peppers blended with the standard eggs and potatoes. Here Trillin recommended Despaña's boquerones (anchovies) with slivers of endive.

As we walked the streets, Trillin had a microphone attached and a speaker system was supposed to help the group hear. Unfortunately, it didn't work so well. If you wanted to hear the Trillin tidbits in between, you had to stay close; he seemed open to questions and was at ease conversing with anyone interested. He mentioned a piece he had written about peppers you could only get in Galicia, Spain, and said that a couple in New Jersey now invites him over every year to eat pimiento peppers they grow in their backyard. Asked if he had been to Shopsin's since it moved locations, Trillin said he'd been away and hadn't gotten down there, but that the menu used to be bigger (this, despite the fact that there is still an overwhelming number of items on the menu now).

While walking to our next destination, Trillin chatted with a pair on the tour that happened to be Joyce Carol Oates and her husband.
All of the stops on Trillin's tour were about the savory, though there were many opportunities to throw in a sweet bit here or there. Trillin is a man who can do without sweets. But as far as desserts go, he did get nostalgic for the Hong Kong cakes lady who used to sell cakes out of a stand on Mosco Street. Trillin decried the others that now sell them —no one does them as well as she did. He'd heard she had been closed down by the Department of Health, but still held out hope for the idea that she'd retired to West Palm Beach instead.
Trillin beside a blown-up New York Times photograph of a previous tour he led. That's his hand reaching for a summer roll.

Though the place is called Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich, Trillin comes here specifically for the Vietnamese summer rolls, which we got with a bit of peanut dipping sauce.

At DiPalo's Fine Foods, we were each offered large hunks of fresh mozzarella, creamy and salty the way this cheese should be. A gentleman stepped out the door at DiPalo's offering more plates of mozzarella and asking if everyone had gotten some. Trillin's answer: "Oh, we're desperate."

The Vietnamese sandwich from Bahn Mi Saigon Bakery was amazing. There were both spicy and non-spicy versions offered. The pork was crispy and flavorful and the sandwich was brightened up by lots of cilantro. Most Vietnamese food in New York is done by ethnic Chinese, according to Trillin.

The lamb and cumin sandwiches at Xi'an Famous Foods come in a doughy white bread and are heavily spiced. A bit messy, but it's all part of the fun. Every year that Trillin has done this, the tour ended with a dim sum lunch. This year, Trillin explained, they decided to change it up because, after eight or nine years, dim sum just seemed too normal. But he did take us past the usual dim sum spot, 88 Palace.

Trillin first came across Sheng Wang one day while riding his bike on Eldridge Street. A place called Young City Fish Balls, two doors down, caught his eye — he loved the name. The thought seemed to trigger Trillin's memory:In Owensboro, Kentucky, he had been to a barbecue place that served lamb with a sign that said, "Mary had a little lamb, won't you have some too?"

As we waited for our grand finale lunch, Trillin described some of his favorite things at Sheng Wang, which included the fish balls that had pork in the middle. 

Steamed dumplings are also a Trillin favorite. You can buy a bag of frozen ones to have at home.

The homemade noodles come either hand-pulled or peeled. The fish balls are worth trying.

Trillin doesn't read food blogs, though he sometimes reads reviews, but he readily admits that if the place isn't in his neighborhood he stops reading. He is an esteemed writer with a wide range of pieces to his name. What is he doing giving tours at the age of 74 to obsessed fans? I can only conclude that it's a pure desire to share his favorite foods and favorite spots, to share his joy, a mark of a true foodie.

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