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Calvin Trillin Sticks to a New Diet

Books: Once he roamed the country writing about its down-home cuisine, the kind you can eat standing up. But now he's moved on to humor-- and a memoir of his father.

June 17, 1996|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's dinner time in Los Angeles and Calvin Trillin makes do with a fist of celery spears.

He is, as you would expect, a noisy and enthusiastic eater no matter how modest the fare, biting off big crunching hunks and chewing with his mouth open. One can almost imagine him, out of habit, contemplating that perfect stalk of celery he once had in those days when a piece of celery was something you bought out of desperation at a roadside market because you had a flat tire and you were only 10 miles from Kansas City and could already smell the hickory smoke rising over slabs of barbecued brisket. That perfect stalk of celery would have been about 26 inches long and just crispy-stiff enough to serve for a misplaced jack handle.

The thought that such a thing could also be eaten would have never crossed his mind.

"But I'm sort of reformed now," Trillin says. "I was worried that the joke was getting old."

Writing for the New Yorker, his stories subsequently collected in three books, Trillin made himself into America's most exuberant eater.

That was in the 1970s and '80s when he roamed and celebrated America through its down-home cuisine: ethnic food, regional food, great exaggerated mounds of it, honestly cooked with the finest lard and drippings, and often eaten standing up, informally, in the company of friends new and old, the kind of people who didn't worry about splattering their shoes with barbecue runoff. On good days, there was no interval between lunch and dinner, except travel time between restaurants with perhaps a stop on the way for a chili dog.

Trillin has now altered course. People had began to think of him as something he wasn't--a gourmet and restaurant critic--instead of what he was--a droll and joyous, 170-pound journalist who told the story of Americans by watching, and sharing, what went down their gullets.

"I wouldn't say I'm a graduate of a 12-step program or anything like that. But modest reformist tendencies have been discerned, that's how I'd put it," he says with a chuckle.

For his next day in Los Angeles, Trillin is having breakfast at a hotel restaurant called the Chez. His readers will recognize the irony of this. As he used to tell it, the gravest pretension in all America was its faux continental restaurants, which he named generically: La Maison de la Casa House.

He orders smoked salmon scrambled eggs. He asks for the eggs to be prepared yolk-less, the consequence of a life sentence "in modified cholesterol prison."

And so, obviously, it's time to leave the subject of 60-year-old Calvin "Bud" Trillin and food. To repeat, he has moved on.

He now writes a weekly topical humor column for Time magazine and still appears, although not so frequently, in the New Yorker with pieces that suit his fancy. He also continues his weekly satirical rhymes for the Nation on matters political.

*

An example:

A month's campaign for Wilson came to naught

He tried to sell his soul but no one bought.

*

The purpose of Trillin's visit to Los Angeles is his 19th book: "Messages From My Father," his second reminiscence of 1950s America. His first, "Remember Denny," about the promise and quiet tragedy of a Yale classmate, was Trillin's best-selling book.

His new memoir about his father is as calm a story as you could imagine in 1996. A functioning extended immigrant family of Russian Jews diverted without complaint to Texas and Missouri by German Jews who worried about riffraff spoiling their nice New York neighborhoods. Voices are not raised, tragedies are not told, hard work makes for success, etc.

The only potential disruption comes when Pop discusses moving the family from Kansas City to California, where they sometimes vacationed. "When I was a child, I took the possibility of moving to California as a serious threat," Trillin writes.

*

In the roaring flood tide of contemporary family conflict, abuse and disintegration, Trillin's "Messages From My Father" is tranquil as a millpond.

But promoting it--or any book--is not.

"These book tours are now an industry," Trillin says, more by way of observation than complaint. He has been doing them since the 1970s, each time finding the process more elaborate and demanding. "This is the first time, though, I've found myself trotting."

After taping a television appearance, with his face still caked in makeup--but not enough to disguise what has been described as its faint resemblance to a basset hound--he trots into Midnight Special bookstore in Santa Monica for a reading and book signing. Among the 50 who attend are several with armfuls of his old books and even scraps of paper, which he autographs as well.

"Where would you like to eat in Los Angeles?" he is asked from the audience.

He deflects the question. "I don't have time to eat in Los Angeles."

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