Feeding a Yen: Savoring Local Specialties, from Kansas City to Cuzco

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2003: My Year in Reading (Pt. 3)

Whew... Ok, I feel much better now. Well rested and ready to continue:Feeding a Yen by Calvin Trillin: It's not that I love all food writers or that I necessarily am enamored by all writing about food. I've just noticed these past few years that there are particular characteristics shared by a lot of food writers that attract me to them as writers. They are very knowledgeable but also self-effacing. They tend to be intrepid travelers with acquaintances on most continents who will gladly direct them to the finest cuisine in the area, and often times these writers, in order to fuel their pens, will receive the finest that these far-flung kitchens have to offer. Ideally, the reader will get an insider's view of a place, one that he will not be able to necessarily be able to replicate, but that he might strive for. An example, when I was in Barcelona this summer, stoked by the writing of Trillin and Jeffrey Steingarten and Jonathan Gold, I was probably most intrigued by the food of the place, a regional cuisine that isn't duplicated elsewhere. Though I might not end up at a four star spot nor be able to decipher the recipe for the grilled sardines or paella that I just ate, I can nonetheless follow in these writers' footsteps as I strive to learn about a place by looking for and at its food. And most of all I can follow in Trillin's footsteps as I seek out deliciousness in all its forms. There's something wonderful about devoting yourself to seeking out the joy comes from a good meal.The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten: Steingarten shares with Trillin a love for food, but beyond that they couldn't be more different. Trillin is folksy and innocent, while Steingarten is a brash, but hilarious, know-it-all who spends as much time writing about himself as he does about food. He puffs himself up and then lets out the air. Most often this occurs over the course of one of his kitchen experiments where he attempts to make the perfect french fry or the perfect fried chicken during which he makes an unholy mess, comes to no conclusion (which is all the more funny considering the certitude with which he undertook the venture), and fun is had by all. The Man Who Ate Everything, his first collection, is good, though a bit wearying by the end. I've read bits of It Must've Been Something I Ate, and it seems to be even better, since by this time he has really mastered his style.Yours, and Mine: Novella and Stories by Judith Rascoe and.....Last Courtesies and Other Stories by Ella Leffland: I was inspired by a couple of things to read these two books. First, I had the opportunity last summer to meet Edwin Frank, the editor of the NYRB press. We talked a lot about The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, of course, but we also talked about how he finds titles to bring back into print. Many are books that he has long been aware of, that he has watched go out of print, and then he has stepped in and reissued them, but there are other titles that he has found by trolling the sidewalk book tables in Manhattan looking for hidden gems, a name that sounds familiar or a title that sounds intriguing. At the time, I had recently finished the collection Prize Stories of the Seventies: From the O. Henry Awards, and I though that it might be interesting to track down the long out of print books by a couple of the writers whose stories I had enjoyed, but whose names were unfamiliar. Though the books themselves were quite good, I really enjoyed reading these as an exploration of the trajectory of the American short story. There is a sorrowful decadence to these stories, a feeling that the world might be unraveling before our eyes. Leffland and Rascoe certainly deserve their places in the O. Henry collection, and it's a shame that they cannot be more widely read today.The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen: In August, over the course of this post and this one there was a discussion here at The Millions about who currently holds the title of best young writer, and who, among those under 50, will still be read voraciously a generation or two from now. Many names were batted around, but the one book that everyone agreed upon was The Corrections. Due to my perhaps unfounded dislike of Franzen, I hadn't yet read the book, but inspired by the discussion, I immediately went out and read the book, was pretty dazzled by it, and wrote this post about it. I hope that The Millions can be host to more great discussions like this one in 2004.Well, it looks like there will be a part four. I promise I'll finish soon. Maybe even this afternoon!

At the Newsstand

A new Colors magazine came out the other day. The theme of this issue is violence, and as always they go to the ends of the earth to track down haunting, though-provoking stories and photographs. The Colors website further illustrates each issue. On the lighter side of the newsstand is a magazine that I first noticed in Derek's bathroom. It's called Wax Poetics and it is all about the sublime art of "beat digging," which is how all those DJs keep bringing hot new tracks to the turntables. They scrounge through the record bins looking for a long forgotten monster beat and then they mix it up on Saturday night. Wax Poetics serves the growing ranks of turntablists out there, but it's also great for anyone who has a turntable and won't pass up a Steely Dan LP for a buck when they come across one. It's also real nice to look at, full high quality reproductions of classic album covers and retro urban graphic design.Retail NotesI was marooned at the cash register for a while today. I was keeping myself busy by finishing Feeding a Yen by Calvin Trillin when I noticed that in the course of a half hour I had sold three copies of the lastest by the ubiquitous Dalai Lama himself, The Art of Happiness. I do live in Southern California and our typical clientele is pretty much the target audience for Zen Buddhist self help with the Richard Gere stamp of approval, but these people were tourists and that book is pretty old, and it's not supposed to be flying off the shelves right now. Then I realized that someone had put this book on the recommended shelf; probably it was the new girl. Like most independent book stores and like some of the chains, we have a prominently displayed shelf full of books especially recommended by the staff. Next to each book is a little blurb that we come up with to say, basically, "this book is good, buy it." We rotate the books on this shelf pretty regularly and without fail whatever is up there flies out of the store. We could borrow a fetid sock from one of the many crazy homeless people who hang out on the block, put a card next to it that says "This moving tale of loss and redemption will not fail to enrich and entertain," and it would be bought and paid for in under five minutes. Luckily, we try to take the moral highground and we recommend books that are better than what the customers would select if left to their own devices. The "recommend shelf phenomenon" has gotten me thinking about the current state of literature. There are many people out there who love to read, but for some reason, people have no idea which specific books they want to read. They look at the piles of books and they grow disoriented and dizzy, unwilling or unable to trust their instincts and judge a book by its cover, which is what they must do since only the smallest fraction of people read book reviews or even seem to be aware of their existence. That is where we come in. We tell them what to read. It's no wonder that people read so much crap. I can't imagine what tripe the typical Barnes & Noble clerk must be pushing on his confused customers.I have already done a great deal of planning for when I'm rich. I know what sort of yacht I would like to own, my air of disinterested aloofness has become ingrained after months of practice, and I have prepared myself to feel perfectly at peace when purchasing a particularly expensive pair of Italian loafers. I also, thanks to my delightful customers, have acquired an hilarious little joke with which I can entertain the various clerks and barkeeps who will provide me with goods and services. It goes like this: Select a moderate quantity of goods, bring them to the cash register, and whip out a hundred dollar bill from amongst a clutch of other one hundred dollar bills. When the clerk uses the counterfeit marker to ensure that the bill is not a fake (which he is REQUIRED to do by his bosses and might just LOSE HIS JOB if he doesn't) chuckle and wink and say "I just printed it this morning," in your very best ironic voice. Watch the clerk stare back at you blankly, barely able to conceal his rage, accept your change, go to the next establishment, and repeat. See! I can't wait. It will be so much fun.

I Guess It’s Probably Time for A Manifesto

At work yesterday, after my first 15 minute coffee break, but before my 30 minute dinner break, I thought about some things. Among them was the idea that The Millions really ought to have a manifesto. A manifesto takes this messy collection of asides and non sequiturs and gives it purpose and meaning. You are no longer reading my uncollected natterings... you are reading a means. And ideally this is a means to an end. It seemed like a good idea save one problem. I'm not really a manifesto guy. They strike me as too rigid, too static. Will I adopt a manifesto and then stop delighting myself, and perhaps a few others, with the promise of a varied discussion on varied topics? On the other hand, I decided a while ago to devote the blog to books primarily, so what's another artificial restriction anyway? Plus, what if my manifesto is purely a force for good, and by devoting myself to it, I provide a service to whomever encounters this little blog. Still, that word manifesto bugs me... so maybe it's just a problem of language then. Perhaps if I think of it as a declaration, a statement of purpose, an annunciation, a mission statement... a pronunciamento if you will, perhaps then I will have less reservations about its formulation. Luckily, last night when I decided that perhaps The Millions needs a manifesto (or whatever you want to call it), a manifesto sprung fully-formed into my mind. It stems from a fact that most readers are not fully cognizant of: there is a concrete number of books that you or I will be able to read in our lifetimes. I'd say that on average, given my moderately busy lifestyle and the fact that I read the New Yorker in full each week, I am able to read approximately one book a week, and therefore, allowing for longer reading time for some of the behemoths that I occasionally undertake, about 50 a year. (n.b. I set a goal for myself to read 75 books this year, but it looks like I'll be lucky if I hit 50). So therefore, I would estimate that I have probably read about 500 real books in my life, give or take a few dozen, and assuming I live until I'm 80 (and am still able to read at such a rate), I'll read another 2750 give or take a few hundred. 3250 books may seem like a lot to read in a lifetime, but a look around the book store and you quickly realize that it is possible to read only a very small fraction of what has been written, and only a fraction of what is worth reading. Which brings me to my manifesto (or whatever), given that you and I will only be able to read a finite number of books in our lifetime, then we should try, as much as possible, to devote ourselves to reading only the ones that are worth reading, while bearing in mind that for every vapid, uninspiring book we read, we are bumping from our lifetime reading list a book that might give us a profound sort of joy.I know, heavy shit: death, obligations, the conversion of unimportant choices into important ones... that's why I wanted to keep my mouth shut. But we have to look at this the right way. I am not making the declaration that if you haven't read Dostoyevsky or Joyce, you are under some sort of moral obligation to do so. I am saying that, given the finite number of books that you will be able to read, you ought to read ones that are good for you, not so much nutritionally, but spiritually. I'm partly inspired here by the food writers that I seem to enjoy inordinately. Calvin Trillin refers in Feeding a Yen to seeking "deliciousness" wherever he can find it. He and his fellow food writers are not saying that if you don't eat at this place or eat this type of food you are doing yourself a disservice; the goal is simply deriving joy from food as often as possible, ideally at every meal. The list of foods that qualify as delicious is different for different people. Likewise the list of books is different for different people. To reiterate: this isn't about compulsory reading; this is about making sure that whatever you read will serve a purpose for you and that, as often as possible, this purpose is to bring you the curious sort of joy that only a book can. Clearly there are some problems with my manifesto, first among them being that, I need a word as good as deliciousness to describe the quality we are looking for in our books. Any suggestions???Lighter NotesMy good and old friend Hot Face has finally joined the rest of us and got himself a blog... follow his adventures if you dare. I continue to feel obligated to mention The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis at least twice a week. I do this because, more than any other book, I insist that you read this... Never have I enjoyed a book so profoundly. My excuse for mentioning it this time is that I just found an interview of Mutis in Bomb Magazine. The interview is conducted by another Latin American writer Francisco Goldman, who is an old friend of Mutis' and provides the introduction for Maqroll.The book I'm currently reading refers to this historial event that I was unaware of: "Dan White, on trial for shooting and killing San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, was convicted of manslaughter instead of first-degree murder after his lawyer raised the Twinkie Defense, the claim that Dan White's brain had been so deranged by Hostess Twinkies and other sugary junk foods that he should not be held fully responsible for his actions. Twinkies, the argument went, made him do it." (Apparently this occurred in 1979, but it was news to me)Anybody know of any decent book blogs or websites about books?... I haven't been able to find any besides Arts & Letters Daily and the various newspaper book sections, of course... I'd like to find something that's a little less review focussed and more discussion focussed. (Something I hope to do here in the future).

I’m Back mmm hmm

I got back from New York yesterday. The Recoys show was unforgettable. Look for pictures here and here. Everybody packed into the sweaty back room of the Kingsland Tavern, and the Recoys became, for the last time, an underappreciated and raucous band from Boston. This time plenty of people knew better. In the years since the Recoys split, I've heard several people say that they are far better than many of the big name bands that they presaged. I agree with them, and so do a lot of folks, it seems. It looks like the record (Recoys Rekoys) is pretty much sold out, so hopefully we'll be able to get a cd out soon. I was definitely digging New York this time around. I haven't been in a while (about nine months I think). I rode the subway a bunch. At one point I noticed a girl reading Life of Pi by Yann Martel and I thought to myself... wouldn't it be great if I could sit and read on the way to and from work each day, or on the way anywhere really, and I could check out what my fellow citizens are reading as we lumber along in our rolling athenaeum. Instead I gas and break my way around like everyone else in L A, and I have less time to read and everyone here has less time to read (assuming they would want to read anyway). It's a shame. On the other hand, the radio here is really good.Watch out Harry Potter gonna kick yo assIsn't it annoying when a writer is writing about some really popular nugget of pop culture and he opens his snarky article with "Unless you've been living in a cave (are a yak-herder in Khazakstan... have been trapped under a large pile of potatoes, etc. etc.) you've heard of Harry Potter (The Matrix... The Lord of the Rings, etc. etc.). Yes... ha ha ha, we all know about this very popular thing, oh snarky commentator, now get on with your witty dressing down of popular culture. Well, for the weekend anyway, I made like that yak-herder and forgot all about Harry Potter for a couple of days. I forgot he ever existed and then I stumbled sleepily and still a little bit drunkenly into JFK where they had a towering heap of yet another J. K. Rowling juggernaut Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. You'll notice on the Amazon page that it says "in stock June 25." That's because Amazon shipped a million copies on the first day! In fact, it turns out that the full 8.5 million copy first run was pretty much sold out before it ever hit the shelves due to the preorders alone. Through some serious finagling (like the buyer buying a few hundred copies from Costco on Saturday) my book store has managed to keep this 870 page behemoth of a book in stock so far. And since midnight on Friday we've gone from general book store to Harry Potter store. In the past 3 days we've probably sold more of this book than all other titles combined. This is all the more shocking when you consider that my store, due to location and clientele, has a meager childrens' section and typically very few children ever come in. I just hope Rowling has enough room for the dump trucks full of money she's making. As for the book itself, I doubt I'll be reading it any time soon, but here's what Michiko Kakutani had to say on the front page of the New York Times, above the fold no less.A Tasty BookI have a soft spot for food writers. Maybe it's because I enjoy a good meal, perhaps too much, but I think it's because I've found food writers to be charming in their obsession with food related minutiae. No one is more charming than Calvin Trillin whose "register of frustration and deprivation" leads him to travel the world seeking those foods that he can't live without. the result of this is Feeding a Yen I can't put this book down. He's like an adventurous and kindly uncle. It's a treat.
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