Calvin Trillin discusses his book “Third Helpings”
BROADCAST: Apr. 22, 1983 | DURATION: 00:53:26
Writer Calvin Trillin talks about his book “Third Helpings” and different regional foods and the ethnicities that influence them. Both Studs Terkel and Calvin Trillin read excerpts from Trillin’s book, and a soundbite from the former Commissioner of Immigration, Leonel Castillo, is played.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel How do you describe Calvin parenthesis (Bud) closed parenthesis Trillin? He's written for "New Yorker" a number of years, the "U.S. Journal", in which he, he what, he explores certain unexplored aspects of America, especially its cuisine, and he writes for probably the most enlightened magazine in the country, "The Nation", for which he receives high double figures. "Uncivil Liberties", which is the basis of one of his books, and his other books, a number of them are--concern food, and this is "Third Helpings", a natural title of the third. There was "American Fried", "Alice"--
Studs Terkel "Let's Eat", and now "Third Helpings", the publishers Ticknor and Fields, and so you describe him either as an authority on cuisine, a food man, or a wit or a funny man, and cuisine could be funny, too, in a sense. So, Calvin Trillin, we'll explore further for the next hour or so. "Third Helpings" is the new book and it's, by the way, it is very funny. Also tells me a little about food, things I didn't know before and things I ought not to know as well. Now I call him, you sir, Bud Trillin, because we've worked together a number of programs and he is my colleague. I'm his colleague. And, so, Bud Trillin, suppose we begin with a thought to talk about ecumenical cuisine. The former Commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization, his name is Leonel Castillo, and he describes a certain place in East Los Angeles. Hear this and then your reflections on it.
Leonel Castillo I was recently in Los Angeles. Right near our office there's a little store right as you go into this little section of town. It's got a lot of Japanese merchants and all, but on this little First Avenue store, there's a sign and it says, "Kosher burritos," little café. Had as its clientele a group of people, most of whom were Black. And I inquired further, I said, "Hey, what kind of place is this?" And my, driver, who was Black, said, "Oh, they got good food." And then he started telling me that the owner was Korean. This is what's happening in the U.S.
Calvin Trillin Yeah, I'm not surprised. There's a restaurant in New York that I wrote about once called "The Parkway," which had Romanian Jewish cooking. They later moved uptown, this is when they were downtown, and Romanian Jewish cooking, as you may know, it uses a lot of garlic to keep the vampire away, and then a lot of schmaltz so in case he gets through the first defense, you hit him with heartburn at the end. Zero Mostel's line about it, about Romanian Jewish cuisine was that it had killed more Jews than Hitler, and I went to talk to the people who worked there, and the chef turned out to be Puerto Rican. And I said, "Wasn't it hard for a Puerto Rican to learn Romanian Jewish cooking?" He said, "No, there was this colored guy here who taught me."
Studs Terkel Which leads to the whole subject of your book. The book is, concerns the adventures of you, Calvin (Bud) Trillin. At the very beginning you have, you start with a challenge, that Thanksgiving Day should be served not with turkey but with spaghetti carbonara.
Calvin Trillin Yes.
Studs Terkel Yes.
Calvin Trillin Well, you have to realize that in the first place we don't know what the pilgrims really had. All we know is that it couldn't have tasted very good. I mean, they were English immigrants and even now, any well-brought-up English girl is taught to boil the vegetables for a month and a half in case one of the guest shows up without his teeth. So, you know that it wasn't very good, and we don't, we're not really sure what they had. And then, when so when people say to me, "Now listen, spaghetti carbonara was not what our forebears had on Thanksgiving," I am fortunately able to say, "They are not my forebears, and in fact one of the things I give thanks for every Thanksgiving is that they're not my forebears. My family didn't see this place 'til 1906, as far as I can make out. So all--we are not responsible for slaughtering any Indians or anything like that.
Calvin Trillin We had nothing to do with pilgrim cuisine. The pilgrims--here's what I think happened: the pilgrims were befriended by the Indians, even though the Indians thought the pilgrims were basically about as much fun as teenage circumcision. And, but they took pity on them. And at the end of the year, the pilgrims invited the Indians over for a Thanksgiving meal. Well, the Indians had had some experience with pilgrim cuisine in the past, so they took the precaution of bringing one dish of their own, kind of like a covered dish supper. What they brought was spaghetti carbonara that had been handed down by their ancestors who learned it from, of course, Christopher Columbus.
Calvin Trillin Right. There of course, they were Indians, they didn't call him Christopher Columbus, they called him the big Italian fellow. And the pilgrims hated it. They said it was heretically tasty, and they said it was the sort of stuff foreigners ate.
Calvin Trillin Right.
Calvin Trillin Oh, they thought, I mean, even today the ancestors--I mean, the descendants of the pilgrims hate spaghetti carbonara, and if you'll notice, the food in America in a club varies in inver--in tastiness in inverse proportion to the social position of the club. That is, if you go to the most exclusive club for a wedding in America, you will be given Velveeta cheese on day-old Wonder Bread quartered, or the sort of chicken a la king that has caused many people to leave the Kiwanis club in terror. And the reason is, obviously they associate garlic and spices and schmaltz with just the sort of people they're trying to keep out.
Calvin Trillin Well, I have written a bit about English cuisine, and I--one of the remarks that the English occasionally object to is that, in an attempt to defend the English, I have said that it's not fair to say the English have neither a cuisine nor a sense of humor, because their cooking is a joke in itself. I think of that as my contribution to international relations.
Studs Terkel It is. Now, by the way, I made this observation, this was a train from London to North Wales and there was food on the train, and you notice the British, and these are upper-class British some sort of guy, eating they're two-fisted eaters, that is, their both hands are going in contrast to Americans, both hands are going very quickly, and they finish food quicker than the most wolfish of American eaters. I suppose the idea is to get it done with as quickly as possible.
Calvin Trillin That's right. Get it over with. And of course, I rather like English breakfasts, but I think one of the reasons the English are kind of cheerless as a group of people is that day after day they have been in the experience of having breakfast and then realize that the high point of the day is over and it's only nine-fifteen in the morning. They have nothing at all to look forward
Calvin Trillin Yeah. Monsieur Mangetout is a, around the time that my wife Alice was trying to tell me that I was eating too much. She couldn't understand that what I was doing was simply research, trying to get a fair sampling of foodstuffs wherever I was. I pointed out to her that I just read in the Dallas paper about Monsieur Mangetout who was the entertainment at a waterbed show in Dallas. And as entertainment, he ate several cocktail glasses, a few dozen razorblades, and a third of a queen-sized waterbed, including the headboard and the brass fittings. I said, "Now, that is excessive." I mean, I find that excessive eating. I have never had so much as one queen-sized waterbed.
Studs Terkel I notice that you would have said, if you were at a dinner party at which the main course was a queen-sized waterbed, you would have said, "No, thank you. It was delicious, but I couldn't eat another bite."
Calvin Trillin Exactly. I don't always have third helpings, and so when Monsieur Mangetout eats junk, he eats junk. He's not talking about potato chips now, he was at that point negotiating with Japan to eat a helicopter. I've never had anything like that.
Studs Terkel Which leads, of course, to your second chapter on real American blue-collar food in a blue-collar town, Buffalo, and you have a history, a short--the Buffalo chicken wing. Would you mind enlightening some
Calvin Trillin Yeah. I would like to say in defense of Buffalo, which is often mentioned with jokes about, with Polish jokes or jokes about how high the snow is, that there is a man I met during the course of my research in Buffalo who thinks that the real problem with Buffalo and that image problem has to do with the name, "Buffalo," he thinks it's not a very tony name. And he has been on a campaign to refer to it as "Boofalo," and he thinks it sounds much classier than that, but I told him of course it's only a matter of time before, if he says, "I'm from Boofalo," when he's on the phone, somebody is going to say, "How's the snoo out there?" Well, Buffalo, I tried to do a short history of the Buffalo chicken wing, and I came across, I think I realized for the first time the difficulties that lie in the path of historians. I had claims, counterclaims, I finally decided that the Buffalo chicken wing was probably invented at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo. Or Boofalo.
Calvin Trillin Oh, I think according to that story, although there is also another man in Buffalo claims to be the inventor, according to that story there was an attempt to make something special for the barflies one night at the Anchor Bar, and Mrs. Bellissimo took some chicken wings, according to one of the stories they had arrived by mistake instead of necks, so they had them sitting there. She cut the chicken wings in half and then cut off that part of the chicken wing that looks as if it might have been a mistake to begin with, and discarded that, and did whatever she did, which had to do with barbecue sauce and marinade, and bake barbecuing or frying and then happened to have some celery there from the antipasto, and put the celery with it and also happened to have some blue cheese dressing and also served blue cheese dressing. So to this day, Buffalo chicken wings are served with celery and blue cheese dressing. Now, I've never figured out what one is meant to do with the blue cheese dressing. I don't think anybody in Buffalo knows. I don't know whether you're supposed to dip the celery in it--
Calvin Trillin Right. He said that he was the inventor of the chicken wing. I would say that, you know, Frank Bellissimo had a plaque from the city saying that he was the inventor of the chicken wing. But of course, even Frank Bellissimo said that he said to his wife, "Why don't you make something special for the fellows at the bar?" Now, the man who said to the Wright brothers, "Maybe it would be nice to have a machine that flies," he was not the inventor of the airplane. No, no. The inventor of the airplane was the Wright brothers. So if anybody in the Bellissimo family invented chicken wings, I think it was Teressa.
Studs Terkel I'll have to coin that one, and it's the fact that the cheese steak, you say the cheese steak associated with Philadelphia, Tucson, a Mexican dish called chimichanga, and Saginaw, Michigan, chopped peanuts and mayonnaise sandwiches, and at Pittsburgh, sandwiches with french fries inside the sandwiches.
Calvin Trillin I'm afraid all those are true. I regret to say that I couldn't figure out why that place in Pittsburgh has the French fries inside the sandwiches. One of the theories is that there are a lot of truck drivers that stop in that place, and that they only have one hand to use to eat the sandwich while they're driving trucking, so they just simply as a matter of convenience put the French fries inside the sandwich. Why people in Saginaw, Michigan eat chopped peanuts with mayonnaise, perhaps one of your listeners can tell us, but I have no idea.
Calvin Trillin Well, fortunately, and I think it's more or less agreed. In fact, I would say it is agreed among all world-class gourmets, that the best ribs, best barbecue in the world has been served at Arthur Bryant's barbecue. Now, it's a very good thing that everybody agrees on that, because otherwise there could be some nasty regional sniping that could cause trouble. But nobody is that interested in being number two, so it's really more of a polite controversy about who's number two. Unfortunately Mr. Bryant did die this winter at age 80, and I'm about to go to Kansas City, I haven't tried the barbecue since he died.
Calvin Trillin Yes. I thought the best comment on his passing was an editorial cartoon in "The Kansas City Star" that shows somebody at the pearly gates with a satchel that says "Arthur Bryant" on it. St. Peter has his arm around around Mr. Bryant's shoulder and is smiling at him in a kind of an ingratiating way and says, "Did you bring sauce?"
Studs Terkel Which leads to--here it does lead, to of course Chicago. I know in the other books you mention Chicago. We'll come to Chinese and Japanese in a moment, too. But we think of pizza. Now, Chicago is associated, is it not, and you have a friend, Fats Goldberg, I believe, who--
Calvin Trillin Well, he like many people, tried to steal Pizzeria Uno's recipe. And the way the fat person did it was this: he decided that he needed to watch it being made. And there was a window in the kitchen in the alley running next to Uno's. So the fat man got a volunteer sweetie to pretend to be necking with him in the alley so that he could look in the window. Unfortunately, he did not take into account the wind coming off the lake in February. The volunteer sweetie had--was willing to undergo a little bit of spooning with Goldberg, but she did not sign up for frostbite. So the two of them were out of there before the pepperoni went on. So it's unclear whether Goldberg actually got the recipe or not. I've had it, and by the way, in London I think Chicagoans can be proud of this, is that many Englishmen thinking that they're doing something exotic, have sat in The Chicago Pizza Parlor in London beneath signs urging yet another term for Richard Daley, and Chicago Cubs pennants, and the last front page of "The Chicago Daily News". So I think it's fair to say that Chicago has a worldwide reputation not just for what the Europeans sometimes call "bang-bang," but also for pizza.
Studs Terkel Now, we know that Japanese cuisine has been very popular because of the health aspects, too, but Chinese has not lost either. Now, the reading of a Chinese menu is a problem, and you know a Professor McCawley.
Calvin Trillin That's right. James McCawley, I think, is a refutation of those philistines who say that scholarly knowledge is of no value in day-to-day life. He can read the wall signs that are written in Chinese in some Chinese restaurants. This isn't done all over the country, but certainly in New York Chinatown and in Chicago and San Francisco, a lot of the, what I assume are the best dishes are written in Chinese, either on a different menu or on the wall, and it has always driven me crazy that I couldn't read those. I have been reduced to pointing and saying, "What's that?" And the waiter always says, "You no like," or he might say, "That says 'Please, we are not responsible for your hats and coats,'" something you can't eat, and--
Calvin Trillin Well, Monsieur Mangetout of course--I forgot to mention about Mr. Mangetout, Studs, that he holds the record for bicycle eating. He has eaten more bicycle than anybody in the world, and my girls didn't believe that. And so we happened to be in a bookstore once and I just, on a chance, picked up the Guinness Book of Records and looked under "Food - Most Eaten, " and there after apple butter and bacon burgers or whatever it was, came "Bicycles - Monsieur Mangetout, France," and then there was a little asterisk saying this is one of the records they are no longer accepting entries for. At any rate, the translations also leave something to be desired in a Chinese restaurant. You get something like "shredded three kinds." Well, McCawley has conquered that. He has done a guide to reading menus, and he does a lot of research in Chicago. When I came to Chicago and went eating with McCawley, McCawley for instance puts out a guide for the new graduate students in linguistics at the University of Chicago about eating in Chicago, and he divides up the restaurants of Chicago in the following way: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Thai, Others. He doesn't even know that there's any pizza here. McCawley treats Chicago like a prairie Hong Kong. So I spent a lot of time eating with him and had a very nice time.
Calvin Trillin Yeah. There are two ways that the Japanese--as you probably know, there are only about seven English speakers in Japan, despite the occupation and multinational corporations and everything else. So you really can't count on anybody understanding what you're talking about. And there are two ways that you get around this: one is that the Japanese are great at food models. That's one of their arts. It doesn't have anything to do with tourism. They've always had that, so many restaurants, particularly lower-price restaurants, have models of what they serve inside the restaurant in the window, and you can just bring the proprietor out and point to the model. Although I found them sometimes reluctant to go, and I finally realized that they probably had read about the crime rate in America and thought when I got them outside Alice would have a go at the cash register. The other thing you can do is simply point at the food, say in a sushi bar or in a yakitori restaurant, which would have chicken and various vegetables that are grilled, and say, "I'll have some of that," and they'll give it to you. They say "Hai!" and they tap their knife a few times and give it to you, and I found out after a while that you didn't have to say "I'll have some of that," you could say anything you want to. So sometimes I would point at something, I would say, "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too," and the guy'd say, "Hai!" Or "You want to buy a duck?" I could say anything I wanted to. We got along all right. I rather like Japanese food. There was a type of food I didn't like, a category of small weeds and assorted unidentified sea creatures that someone we know who's lived in Tokyo for some time refers to as "low tide stuff." I didn't really love that. But otherwise I liked it a lot.
Studs Terkel We know this is, away from your book, that there is, there's been a tremendous increase in the popularity of Japanese restaurants. Of course, it has a lot to do with the awareness of cholesterol, doesn't
Calvin Trillin Yes.
Studs Terkel You know, I think we should come--you don't mind if we jump to the last one, the last chapter is a book about health food. This deals with a place in New Orleans. "The Pritikin Diet and Project Life". It's about a meat pie, Lasyone's Meat Pie Kitchen and Restaurant, and the health--we're becoming now aware of health food. There was the rather celebrated Pritikin Diet, and this--
Calvin Trillin Right. This was actually an attempt to get the entire city of Natchitoches, Louisiana on the Pritikin diet, and Natchitoches, Louisiana happens to be famous for, among other things, meat pies. The Natchitoches meat pie. The Natchitoches meat pie, I think it's fair to say, if you said--
Calvin Trillin Yeah. It looks like Natchitoches when you read it, but it's called "Nakketish" for some reason. Yes, there was an attempt by, one might even have said, that some, there may have been some thought of publicity to gain by the Pritikin people, I'd hate to say that, but Governor Edwards was then the governor and of course he was a Cajun, despite his Anglo name, and he said that it was a noble cause, even though as a Cajun he would rather die 10 years early instead of eating that sort of food. And I know I asked people what some of the food tastes like, and they would say things like "cardboard" or "plastic." So it wasn't--some people thought that Louisiana, that part of Louisiana was too much of a test for the Pritikin diet, that it was impossible, and that maybe, if they really wanted to see if somebody could do it, they ought to try someplace like Ohio first.
Calvin Trillin Well, that's right, because, of course, his restaurant became better known, because anybody who would go into town to deal with this noble experiment would have to see this marvelous antithesis to the Pritikin thesis down the street.
Studs Terkel Calvin Trillin, his book, "Third Helpings", published by Ticknor and Fields, which you might say is part of a trilogy. You know, we've heard of different trilogies of John Dos Passos, and of Faulkner works, and--
Studs Terkel And Cajun. The book "Third Helpings" as described as a traveling man's struggle to get something decent to eat. And in Louisiana that we know of Cajun food, there's a place called Didee's. Where's--Didee's near, about 25 miles outside New Orleans
Studs Terkel Didee's.
Calvin Trillin In Opelousas. And then another Didee's, same family but a different restaurant, related people, opened in Baton Rouge. And then when the original Didee's proprietor died, the waiter started a place called Dee Dee's.
Calvin Trillin And he explained it very well and someone said, "How come you called the restaurant Dee Dee's that you opened?" And he said, "So it would be the same, only different." I would say a Louisiana answer to that question.
Calvin Trillin Yes. He says that--when I went there on the occasion of the purchase of Didee's by a go-go New York conglomerate, which intended to turn Herman Parrodin into the Colonel Sanders of baked duck, and of course the people in Opelousas immediately said that the go-go New York guys had not unsurprisingly bought the wrong restaurant, that Herman really didn't know anything about baked duck at all, and that the real recipe was at Didee's, later Dee Dee's in Opelousas. Apparently, people in Opelousas think that nobody in Baton Rouge knows how to eat anyway, and anybody who has to go to the Capitol in Baton Rouge for business takes his lunch or waits to eat until he gets home.
Studs Terkel Well, Parrodin is talking, as described by Calvin Trillin, described himself as a poor little old dumb boy born in a sweet potato patch in Opelousas, Louisiana, but, and here's the part, "He also described himself as being a better chef than Paul Bocuse. "He's 'la nouvelle cuisine,'" he said to me, drawing out the last word in astonishment. 'La nouvelle,' how he, 'la nouvelle cuisine,' in this, at the sort of dumb thing folks would believe, things--dumb folks, 'Don't tell me about la nouvelle cuisine! I've been doing la nouvelle cuisine all my goddamn life!'" And so he's up on new--
Calvin Trillin Yes, he described himself as quite a bit better chef than Paul Bocuse, and not the sort of man who should be sweeping up after a bad day at Didee's restaurant, so that's when he sold to, I think Omni Capital International, which I translate into all money everywhere. Everywhere.
Studs Terkel "I'm like a perfumer. I'm telling you. I studied the herbs for five years. I can name more about herbs than the man who wrote the book." And so there he is, and there are the New York capital gains outfits, too. So where do we go next? These are the adventures of Calvin Trillin, just a guy seeking--and he says also, he says there are no secrets.
Studs Terkel Squantum.
Calvin Trillin One of the clubs we were talking about, but in fact this one, fortunately, is a club interested pretty much in food and they built a kitchen where people who didn't understand what was going on might have built a tennis court or something. They don't indulge in that sort of thing. And then I went to a place called Francis Farm, which is actually in Rehoboth, Massachusetts near Providence, and Francis Farm has been doing clambakes, oh, for years, maybe 50 years, something like that, sometimes two a day, like back-to-back summer camps, except the sort of summer camp where there aren't any counselors turning you in for drinking beer.
Studs Terkel Could you--you know, there--there's these guys meet. These are seemingly conventional guys, but when they have this annual clambake at the Squantum Club, they describe a guy named [Vasto?].
Calvin Trillin Yes. I--a lot of the bakes at Francis Farm are from one organization or another, but then they have nine public bakes a year. That's what I went to, but then I found that the people at the public bakes are almost a club in themselves, because the same people come over and over again, and they know each other only from the bake. They're in all sorts of different fields and they call each other by their last names, probably because their last names are written on the paper tablecloth in front of them, and they are all, I would say, serious eaters.
Calvin Trillin Yes.
Calvin Trillin This is Vasto, because they said that the real big eater was not there. A man named Vasto. "I was informed by the regulars that the most serious eater among them, a Boston maintenance man named Vasto, had not shown up. At the final bake of the previous season, Vasto had apparently mentioned that he would be changing jobs, and some of the regulars surmised that he was no longer able to get away on Sundays. It sounded as if Vasto needed all of a Sunday to make it to the clambakes since he was said to take a train from Boston to Providence, a bus to Rehoboth, and unless someone stopped to pick him up, a hike of two or three miles from Route 44 to the farm. 'He's very skinny,' Lundgren told me. 'But he always has four bowls of chowder.' 'He always heaps the last bowl high and covers it with a plate so it stays warm while he starts in on the clam cakes,' one of the regulars said. 'Then he takes a little walk and comes back and finishes it off.' We were on the bay clams ourselves at the time. The waitress returned regularly to fill the platters, and Estes complained regularly about finding too many broken shells without clams. I was finding Breed's recommendations well-considered. He's the one who told me to go easy on the clam cakes because it fills you up. The clambake clam tastes like a steamer enhanced by a slightly smoky flavor and the same flavor works particularly well with fish and onions. 'He's more than six feet tall,' Estes said, talking of Vasto again. 'Completely bald,' Lundgren added, as he reached for more clams. 'Doesn't drive a car.' 'Mostly shells here,' Estes said, picking around at the bowl of clams. 'This must be the bottom of the barrel.' The waitress brought more clams and more onions and more brown bread, more sweet potatoes and more white potatoes. 'Yes, sir,' someone said. 'He can eat four bowls of chowder, then go to the bar for a beer.' 'He's six foot six and thin as a rail,' Estes said. 'He must be about a foot wide.' Estes turned to Gardner. 'Wouldn't you say about a foot wide?' 'Yeah, about a foot,' Gardner said between bites of pollock. The regulars were still talking about Vasto as they finished off their watermelon."
Calvin Trillin Right. Actually, there's a thing at the end where I imagine Vasto coming to a bake because he didn't--he never showed up, and the man who runs it, who was once a high school teacher who runs the debates, said, when I asked him about Vasto, if there really was such a man, he said, "'Oh, yeah. He looks a lot like Silas Marner. I don't know what became of him today.' I still think about Vasto, particularly when I'm hungry for clams. I can see his rising early in the morning in Boston, carefully straightening his small room and silently setting out for the long journey to Rehoboth. 'It's Vasto,' one of the neighbors says to another. 'Off again, wherever he goes.' At South Station he digs an old-fashioned coin purse out of his pocket and buys a round-trip ticket to Providence. He stares out of the window of the train, thinking of clam cakes. At the bus station in Providence, the ticket agent just nods and punches out a round-trip to Rehoboth. 'Bon appetit,' the agent says. Vasto nods silently. He walks in from Route 44 toward Francis Farm, a steady pace, surprisingly graceful for a man who is six foot six inches tall and only a foot wide. Someone picks him up for the last mile or so. A fan, who says 'Four bowls today, Vasto?' Vasto smiles. Then they're at Francis Farm. The bake has been on for half an hour, puffs of smoke escaping from under the canvas carry the smell of clams and onions. It is time for the chowder. Vasto sits down to eat."
Calvin Trillin From the actual Vasto, which was on yellow-lined paper in pen, a very careful hand, and he asked me to send him a copy of the articles and said that he actually eats a little more than I said. I had underestimated him.
Studs Terkel And I'm thinking, we're talking to Calvin Trillin, now he's an amateur taster, that is, amateur involving love, of course, an amateur is one in love with tasting. But there are professional tasters, and Paula [Rome? Rohm?] is one. And you have a fantasy, do you not, of, do you not have a fantasy?
Calvin Trillin She was in the sort of line of work that I fantasize about: that is, I am asked to be a taster to find out what sort of things we should have as a--I have a lot of fantasies, I know--you know, I had once had a fantasy that Mao Zedong had come to New York and the State Department had assigned me to take him around to eat. And since he was so busy being the Chairman of the Communist Party of the People's Republic of China, and a lot of people to worry about, he only had time for one dish at each place. So we would go from place to place with various specialties, including the Chinese restaurants where his chauffeur would translate the wall signs for me, and also a restaurant in my neighborhood called The Coach House, which is a rather fancy restaurant and doesn't allow people in without a coat and tie. And there the front man would stop us and say, "I'm sorry. Your friend cannot come in in a Mao
Calvin Trillin Well, that was the problem I did--I have--have always had. I mean, there's a place in Baltimore where I like only the deep-fried potatoes skins, and it's somewhat embarrassing to walk into a restaurant that has a full menu and say, "Just give me your deep-fried potato skins. I don't like the rest of the stuff around here." So but with Mao, if you had Mao, it would be very easy.
Studs Terkel "In my thoughts," writes Calvin Trillin, "I spend a lot of time in Richard's in Abbeville, Louisiana carefully comparing their boiled crawfish and boiled shrimp to the fare served at The Guiding Star in New Iberia, while ordinarily I'd have spent it on some boudine research."
Calvin Trillin Well, it's something like sausage. It's something like sausage, and it varies. Cajun boudin--French boudin is blood pudding, but Cajun boudin is a kind of a sausage and it varies from town to town. Sometimes it has a lot of rice in it and various things and you kind of squeeze it out of the casing when you eat it.
Studs Terkel And so you're doing the research there, and "Then on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I lean on a counter at Moshe's, chewing on a pumpernickel bagel while discussing how many square feet will be required for a good marketplace bagel operation. I sample oyster loaves in New Orleans." Now these oysters in bread, isn't it?
Studs Terkel "And Italian beef sandwiches in Chicago"--continue with the fantasy. "And smoked [mullet?] on the West Coast of Florida." And you go on: "I compare a Cuban sandwich served on the West Side of Manhattan" and you continue in this vein to Alice Waters and Berkeley, to Chez Panisse, and as you build--and of course you're back at Bryant's barbecue in Kansas City. And as you build this, this could be one of those Arabian Nights fantasies, isn't it?
Calvin Trillin In Crawford County, Kansas, which is Southeast Kansas, and this was a war between Chicken Annie's and Chicken Mary's, really rivals for years. It goes back to the business about the kosher burritos. There is Southeast Kansas a fried chicken war between Chicken Annie and Chicken Mary cooking the most American of specialties, and one of them, it seems to me, was Bohemian and the other one Hungarian. Southeast Kansas was a coal-mining area, and most of the people there came from small villages near Czechoslovakia or someplace like that. And both of them started cooking because their husbands got hurt in the mines and they had to do that to make a living, and there was a terrible war, and the war was so disturbing to me, and I found it so impossible to decide where my sympathies were, that I went to Kansas City, which was only a couple hundred miles away, to have a talk with Chicken Betty.
Calvin Trillin That's a third chicken cook, and the trouble with Chicken Annie and Chicken Mary's place is that they deep-fried chicken, I mean, and I think that that is more or less like putting mittens on a sculptor. You just can't, you can't do it right.
Calvin Trillin Well, one of them you just batter the chicken. I speak as someone who, as you know, does not cook, and put it in one of those baskets that they use for french fries, and drop it in the oil. Now, Chicken Betty, one of the last of the great pan fryers, has these great huge black skillets which Chicken Annie and Chicken Mary started out with, they just found they couldn't do the volume. One of the things about pan-frying is that you have to go to a pan-fry chicken restaurant with somebody you're willing to wait a half an hour with. It's one of the reasons
Studs Terkel And of course if you can't serve that many, but you were asking Chicken Betty whether she'd do anything different if she had to do it all over again. She's the careful craftsperson and does not serve mass--she does it--right? It's like the old--
Calvin Trillin Yes.
Calvin Trillin Crawford--
Calvin Trillin That's right. I think it was Chicken Mary's grandson married Chicken Annie's granddaughter or something like that, and they all--and that's when I decided that perhaps these--when people say that in America we have left the feuds of Europe behind, that that is true in Kansas because of what they did instead of instead of having some kind of fight, they had a huge wedding, and I believe that the chicken was battered at Chicken Annie's and fried at Chicken
Calvin Trillin They're still fine, and they're still, they're still I believe--the argument originally was over a road, about whether to name something Chicken Annie's Road, and where that stands, I think is unclear. Meanwhile, my similar attempt in Kansas City to get a bridge, a major Missouri River crossing, preferably named after Chicken Betty, has gone nowhere, and the City Council has still not replied to my suggestion that they name the airport after Arthur Bryant. Bryant Field.
Studs Terkel Bryant Field. You know what we haven't talked about this far? In your book, in "Third Helping", the question of beer, of liquids. Thus far it's been solid food. And now we come to two guys, a guy named Suds, and what's Suds' name again?
Calvin Trillin Suds
Calvin Trillin Reading, Pennsylvania, one of the gritty cities, as you know. Suds Kroge and Dregs Donnigan are the authors of "A Beer Drinker's Guide to the Bars of Reading", dedicated to their wives, and they are also the authors of an even more ambitious book, "The Beer Drinker's Guide to the Bars of Berks County". I believe that required something like two or three hundred bars, so these are people who are thorough and persistent scholars.
Calvin Trillin Yeah. In fact, I just saw them the other night because we had a publication party for this book, and Suds and Dregs were asked if they would come from Reading, and then I said also "If you happen to be going by the Yuengling Brewery any time that week, you might bring some beer, and also Dieffenbach's Potato Chips," which has the legendary motto printed on each package, "Do not expose to sunshine." The best potato chips in the world, where you, as you bite into them and you hear that crack, you also feel the pure lard that they were cooked in explode in your mouth, and I said to Suds and Dregs, "Please come anyway." I think it was Dregs, I said, "Please come anyway. I mean, if you can't do that, although I know it's a problem driving up from Reading on a school night," and Dregs said, "We haven't turned down a party in 37 years."
Calvin Trillin Yeah. They're very good with the one-line comment to describe a place. One place is, the bartender is described as having the personality of a Handi Wipe, and I think their description of a five-B bar is excellent. Five-B or five-beer bar, that's the highest rating. That's
Studs Terkel This is what it's all about. They refer, of course, to, they get four and a half B, The Grand Central. Taproom. Oh, we should point out some of the bars are called hotels, for some reason.
Calvin Trillin Yeah. In Pennsylvania, because of a kind of a wrinkle of the liquor laws, some bars are hotels, are called hotels, although they don't seem to have front desks or overnight guests, as far as I can see. But some of them are called taprooms, some of them are called taverns.
Studs Terkel So the Hotel Grand, Chick's Hotel Grand, makes a good impression. But the idea of--there's a good mix, the four and a half B bar is The Grand Central Taproom, I guess at which everything is sold.
Calvin Trillin Well, that's right. A lot of these places sell--Stanley's, the five-B bar, even sells things, not just work gloves and lighters and packaged lunchmeat that you can take home so that, as Dregs said, "If the little woman," when they're in Stanley's, which doesn't allow females in the bar, they tend to refer to their wives as "the little woman," "If the little woman sends you out for lunch for tomorrow to get some provisions, you can go to Stanley's, have several beers, and come back with lunch or you can even come back with a kerosene heater or something." They sell a lot.
Studs Terkel Hey, it occurs to me, are they double personalities, Suds is David Wardrop and Dregs' real name is Bob Weirich, they're the high school teachers. Do they--like, say, a Japanese in the 20th century, Japanese businessman wears his kimono at home and his business suit out.
Calvin Trillin Well--
Calvin Trillin I don't think so, because they were--they seem, for authors of that sort of book, they seem to me very well-behaved, decent, trim, just the sort of people you would want to entrust your high-school-aged children to, even at the bar.
Calvin Trillin Well, they were, they were--and in fact, a woman who we met at Chick's Hotel Grand, which they described as a bit too derelictish, when she, she thought that Suds looked very professorial, very professorial, and she was drinking boilermakers, and as we were about to leave suddenly burst into tears as she was talking to Suds. And he went and talked to her for a while and comforted her, and by the time he left she seemed to have recovered totally. And I said, "What was she crying about?" And he said, "She says a beer at the Hilton costs two dollars," and Dregs said, "It's enough to drive anybody to tears."
Studs Terkel And you know that Dorothy, you look at her, once she was pretty. You see it. And she drops those--there used to be nickels, dimes in the jukebox. Two bits in the jukebox for that same song she wants to hear again, it could be--it's an old Peggy Lee record or something there, and there she is. And she's at every bar. So, your book is sociological as well as gustatorial.
Studs Terkel At one end of the bar, we got to end with this, a nostalgic note. While Bud Trillin is in Reading with his two friends, his two guides, his two cicerones, Suds and Dregs, oh, I wanted to use that, cicerone.
Studs Terkel On the one end of the bar, and here it was a prizefight bell, that the bartender could clang any time someone bought a round for the house. That's a throwback to me, to boyhood, to the end of Prohibition, to Repeal, I don't hear that bell any more.
Studs Terkel "Third Helpings" by Calvin Trillin. It's a delightful book, but it's good out loud reading, too, and it tells you a lot of stuff about food, aside from being a funny book, and it's a Ticknor and Fields the publishers, any postscript before we say another hail and farewell?
Calvin Trillin No, I hope that the standards of scholarship are kept up by everybody in Chicago in searching out as much of the fare sampling of the foodstuffs here, and that some new wrinkle on the Chicago pizza will come our way, that there is always progress.