Calvin Trillin

The food writer and humorist gets serious about fathers and sons.

Published June 24, 1996 9:27AM (EDT)

if weekly columnists are inevitably forced to cannibalize their personal lives, Calvin Trillin put off the inevitable for quite a while. After a disgruntled stint writing for Time magazine -- where he vainly attempted to get out of religion stories by inserting the word "alleged" before such miraculous events as the crucifixion and the parting of the Red Sea -- the young journalist landed a staff writer job at The New Yorker. For 15 years he traveled the country, ferreting out odd stories in out-of-the-way places -- and developing his palate for such delicacies as chicken-fried steak and barbequed backribs, along with a reputation as one of the first champions of American regional cuisine.

His column in The Nation (for which he was famously underpaid -- "in the high two figures" -- by the publisher, a man he calls Victor "Sticky Fingers" Navasky) became syndicated in 1986, and he has since returned in triumph (and perhaps gloating) as a columnist for Time. The Nation continues to publish his satirical poetry, which analyzes the week's news in rhymed couplets which can only be described as doggerel -- an acquired taste.

But despite publishing 16 books (including two novels and a volume of short stories), Trillin didn't debut on the bestseller list until 1993, with "Remembering Denny." He is still surprised by the success of this "sad" book, a memoir about a college friend who appeared to be the most golden and promising of their Yale class -- and who wound up committing suicide in the early '90s. While puzzling out the reasons for Denny's lack of faith in himself, Trillin kept returning, by comparison, to his own childhood and how his parents conveyed to him their subtle, but rock-solid, conviction that he was "a special case." These ruminations inspired a memoir about his father, published as an essay in The New Yorker and now appearing in expanded form as his new book, "Messages From My Father."

Trillin still seems a little nonplussed to be writing about such personal matters (he keeps describing them as "not dramatic"), reflecting the double-barrelled reticence resulting from being both a Midwesterner and a Jewish man. That peculiar heritage has given him his dry, sneaky wit, one particularly adept at puncturing the grandiose pretentions of self-important people (dubbed "big k'nockers" by his father). "Messages" leads with a passel of winning anecdotes about the eccentric Trillin pere, but leaves its reader with a distinct and all too rare sense of what a truly functional family is made of: decency, common sense, and love.

What inspired you to write this book about your father?

What happened was, a friend of mine from college died five years ago, and I did a book about his death. To my surprise, my father ended up being in the book a lot -- partly because it was about Yale, the '50s and how people from the backgrounds that Denny and I had got to Yale in those days, and partly because Denny's family was not really part of his life. It made me realize how important my father had been, because I really couldn't imagine my life without my father. So my editor at Farrar Straus suggested I write more about him. I did a shorter version for The New Yorker. About a year later we decided to make it a book, and I thought I'd add a thousand words or so. But it turned out that I added a lot, because I think there were a lot of memories and opinions and reflections back in the little creases of my mind that I didn't know about. Also, I think I started figuring it out more.

Had you thought much about him before the Denny book?

I guess so. I think I occasionally mentioned him in print -- his curses maybe and his poetry. But I didn't have any intention of writing about him; I thought it was an unlikely project. In fact I kind of quit at the end of the summer, thinking, why am I writing these anecdotes about a grocer in Kansas City? It doesn't seem like a project that has any reason for being, in the sense that he didn't have a dramatic life, he didn't have a dysfunctional family, he didn't have a secret life as a bootlegger or something. Then, only because I liked the way the first part of it sounded -- starting off with the coffee incident -- I liked the sound of it so I kept fiddling with it.

You have him make that incredible assertion -- that if you were blindfolded you couldn't tell the difference between coffee with milk and without -- that is completely untrue. . .

I actually believe that most of those things are true. Nobody in the entire world can tell you what kind of gin they're having in a gin and tonic. At University of California-Davis, (wine industry researchers) have people drink wine in black glasses at the same temperature and most of them can't tell red from white. Red from white! But you really can tell the difference between coffee with cream and coffee without cream. He was pretty stubborn.

In the book, you go through this process of discovering that almost everything he told you was in fact true.

I think it's a general experience that people have. Not always -- some people have fathers who are almost always wrong. There can't be a general rule in the world that fathers are always right, because there are so many people in the world who are wrong about almost everything -- and they have children, so it just doesn't work out mathematically. But a lot of what my father said, even the oversimplified things, I realized was sort of right. With some light editing here and there, I've sort of accepted his views.

One of the things that surprised my editor was that you are Jewish.

I should say that in Kansas City, Calvin Trillin is a very common Jewish name. But I guess it isn't. I think it's probably because I have this odd name. My father had no interest in not being Jewish, but he did have an interest in my not having any encumbrances. So I have this neutral name, maybe even Christian name, Calvin. There isn't exactly any way to put an asterisk next to it and say, by the way. . . I've written on Jewish things, and what I write often has Yiddish in it. The problem has been, if you don't have a Jewish name you have to be careful what you write about Jewish subjects. Because Jews can say some things about Jews that Gentiles can't -- the same way black writers can say some things about black subjects that whites can't.

I wrote a column in The Nation years ago about this elevator operator named Murphy in a West Side building, kind of a super, and he had this theory about how clever the Jews were. He was always saying how clever it was of the Jews to train that guy Sandy Koufax to pretend he was Jewish so the rumors of Jewish klutziness would be thrown out. He never had anything against anyone, and there were mostly Jews in the building. He was old and set in his ways and if you contradicted him he sent your mail to Topeka, Kansas. So The Nation got a few letters, but many thousands of words -- there weren't that many of them but each one was a tome.

One guy, his name was Harrigan or something, he said, "Just like Hitler, Trillin -- undoubtedly a WASP -- uses two minority groups against each other, etc. etc." They sent me all this stuff and said, what's your reply? So I said, "Hitler, OK, Harrigan. But watch who you're calling a WASP!"

Some of the assumptions might come from your understated humor and your talk of being a Midwesterner.

People think that there is something opposite, something conflicting about that. A few years ago there was a movie, "White Palace," Susan Sarandon was in it, set in St. Louis and she was playing a waitress. There was a young Jewish guy, and the guy's family had New York accents -- but they lived in St. Louis and there was nothing in the movie to indicate that they'd ever lived anywhere else. There was an assumption, because so much Jewish cultural life in America has to do with the East, with New York specifically -- as I say in the book, New York is a code word for Jews.

But my father was very Midwestern -- and Jewish. He can speak Yiddish, but he did sound like Harry Truman, and he did say, "haven't had so much fun since the hogs ate my little sister." That was just the way he was.

Oddly enough -- I don't think I realized this until I wrote the book -- the concept of Big K'nocker, the sort of deflating humor of the Eastern European shtetl, is the same as Midwestern humor. Midwesterners are always knocking down the big shot and talking about people who got too big for their britches. "Big k'nocker" is exactly the same thing. I had dinner with some of my high school pals, most of them were Protestants. They had no problem with "Big k'nocker" at all. That's the way they talk. They've always made fun of people in exactly the same way. They just use different words.

It's true that when you talk about being from Kansas City -- and I've been reluctant to give up being from Kansas City -- people assume that you're a Methodist. But you're not necessarily a Methodist.

This book and your last are more personal than most of your other writing. You've said you were a little surprised that "Remembering Denny" was such a success.

It seemed to me a very sad book. Of course it was sadder for me than for most people, because Denny was my friend, and I was sad for Denny. Also, it was a grim story. And Denny didn't have a dramatic life. It wasn't as if I found him in a gutter somewhere or anything.

Although suicide is dramatic.

But I was surprised, it never occurred to me that anybody would buy the book. It was too late for me to worry about it, I was going to write it anyway. I think the subject made people think about their lives. The mail I got from "Denny" was very similar to the mail I got when the shorter version of my father's story was in The New Yorker. The mail from "Denny" was, by and large, from people who saw Denny in somebody they knew or they had known, particularly the sort of golden boy of their high school or college and people who identify with Denny themselves. I got even more mail from the thing about my father. It seemed to be largely from people talking about their own fathers.

As far as the change to a more personal tone, I don't think there was a way to write about Denny as a straight biography. I think it wouldn't have worked out well as a book. I write murder pieces in a very flat, third-person way because it seems to me that's the way to write them -- just kind of get out of the way of the story. But it would have been dumb for me as a friend to write as if I were a reporter assigned to write a book about this guy. It would just have been silly. So it was more personal than other books that I've written. Then I went back to being a smart aleck reporter after that. And again, to do a book on my father as if he were Winston Churchill and I were an eminent historian gathering all the material together -- it just wouldn't have worked out. I think the material controls the way you write it.

Do you feel it would be harder to write about your mother?

No. I got along fine with my mother. She just didn't have the same sort of impact on my life as my father did. She obviously went along with this grand plan, but I don't think with a song on her lips. I think she would have been happy to see me close to home, with a decent job and behaving myself. She wasn't as imposing a figure in my life as my father was. Also, she didn't do things like he did -- write poetry on the menus, collect curses and stuff. She was a much more conventional person than my father.

A lot of writers make a life's project of writing about their relatives even when the stories aren't that dramatic.

Writers are always desperate to find something to write about, so they'll write about anything they can get away with. I've used my own family in writing -- as opposed to what a social scientist would call my family origin. I've written about them, but they each have a persona -- they are not them. Alice really is a more sensible person than I am, as she's presented in the books about eating. But when people meet her, they expect her to be a nutritionist in sensible shoes, hair in a bun. Once I was giving a speech here and I said that, and someone asked, "Is she in the audience?" and I said, "Yes." She asked, "Would she stand?" So Alice stood, and then she held up this $30,000 Italian shoe to show everybody that she did not have sensible shoes. But that's quite different than writing about her, really, and I haven't actually done that.

And my girls, I wrote about them by name until they were about eight, and then I decided they were getting too old, it would be embarrassing. Even though I wasn't obviously writing about any of their problems. I just can't imagine -- somebody once sent me some columns to look at, something about his teenage daughter and the various problems she had, kind of making fun of her, and I said, 'Jesus, the guy's got to be crazy.' I did a couple of pieces in a column where I used initials, "a teenager I know named 'S'." But I had my daughter Sarah read it before I turned it in.

A.A. Milne's son never forgave his father for writing "Winnie the Pooh."

I know it. I read that obituary of him in the New York Times and thought God, what a sad life he had. It's a chancy thing. You really can't do it very much. I think that's one of the reasons Anna Quindlen in the Times quit doing a personal column. She had two boys and she wrote about them, and then they got too old and she quit doing it.

Writing about your family is tricky business. I think the rule of thumb is very easy on that: If you have any reason to believe that you are Dostoyevsky, it's OK. But if you don't have any reason to believe you're Dostoyevsky it isn't OK. And I don't know too many people who have reason to believe they are Dostoyevsky.

You once made a remark about food writers being obsessive and crazy, and I've noticed that, too. Why do you think that is?

Did I say that? For one thing, obviously, people literally become obsessive about eating. There are actual pathologies having to do with eating, as opposed to, say, being a sports writer. There are very few pathologies having to do with being a sports writer. The sports writer is just usually eccentric. Not all food writers, but I think some food writers, for one thing, get into a position where they actually think it's very important whether this restaurant is the second or third best French restaurant in Chicago. And because most of them are intelligent people, they know in the great scheme of things it really isn't important.

Are you sure they know that?

I think they know that. There are food writers in New York, not now but ten years ago, who would actually think that if you liked or didn't like the Coach House -- an old-style American kind of restaurant in the Village -- it wasn't simply that you were mistaken, or perhaps had a different opinion. It was your character. You were a flawed human being. You couldn't possibly be trusted about anything.

I think I compared it to movie people. If you ask a really, really good movie critic like Pauline Kael, for instance, what's more important, peace in the Middle East or Hollywood making better movies, she's an intelligent person, so she would say peace in the Middle East. But she doesn't mean it. She really doesn't mean it at all. She thinks it's much more important --

That Brian DePalma finally get all the credit due.

Exactly. That's a good example.

I wanted to ask you about animal letters. You write something you think is clever, then get letters about the weirdest things. . .

Like I said in the Time column, if you wrote that Dan Quayle looked like a deer caught in the headlights, you'd get more letters from the deer people than the Quayle people -- and he had a lot of loyal supporters.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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