Q&A: Calvin Trillin 

On Writing, Fish Balls, and Ordering off the Menu

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Calvin Trillin is the kind of man who can cover a murder in long-form reportage and also describe bland potato knishes as resembling "vinyl coin purses." You don't frequently find that sort of range. Although he deserves fame for coining the term La Maison de la Casa House to refer to restaurants that serve indistinct, interchangeable "continental cuisines," he is better known for his sense of humor and 47 years with The New Yorker. He gathered his best comic columns in his new book, Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin. AARON GILBREATH

MERCURY: Your food writing is some of the best on Earth. Has your literary pedigree helped you get the delicious menu items in New York's Chinatown that previously eluded you?

CALVIN TRILLIN: I now carry a card that says, "Please bring me some of what the people at the next table are having," but it doesn't always do any good. This food writer from San Francisco learned enough Japanese before he went to Japan to order in a restaurant, and he said to a waiter when he saw something delicious, "Could you bring me some of what the man at the next table is having?" The waiter looked puzzled, went over and had a word with the man, picked up his plate and brought it back over to the food writer. Anyway, he was a real food writer. I'm strictly amateur. I write about food in order to write about other things and make jokes. I can't cook. I don't actually know anything about food, although I have trouble persuading people of that.

You have admitted to being "devoted to fish balls." I love them, too. For the uninitiated, can you describe their singular pleasures?

Fish balls are matzo balls that taste good.

Having grown up eating matzo balls, I'd say that nails it.

Well, they're a little harder. They're not quite as bouncy as my grandmother's matzo balls, which were very good for playing jacks if you couldn't eat them.

You've published everything from novels to verse to travel pieces. How did you learn to write in such diverse forms? Was rent so high in the West Village that you had to work 10 times as hard?

Well, rent was high, but The Nation only pays $100 per poem. I didn't know I could write all of these until I did. I wrote a piece about stones in Maine that had Runic inscriptions—Viking writing—and thought that was a good story. I wrote it as fiction, but I didn't call it a novel for a very long time. In fact, around the house I called it the "fiction thing." My wife said if it was ever published, people would call me the "fiction thingist," so I started calling it a novel.

In honor of your Deadline Poetry, I'd now like to ask a question in verse:

When rebels overran Gaddafi's lair,

They didn't find lace underwear.

Instead they found proof that he was no ordinary geeza'.

What do you make of those photos of his crush, Condoleezza?

As long as we're exchanging poetry, here's my Gaddafi poem. It's called "Without His Nurse" [Note: this piece appeared in the March 28, 2011, issue of The Nation]:

While everybody says, "Just go!"—

His countrymen all surely know

Adversity seems more adverse

Without his nurse.

"He's bonkers," people say. "That might

Be why he rants into the night."

His talks get further still from terse

Without his nurse.

The body count is now quite large;

He's killed a lot to stay in charge.

And all this killing must seem worse

Without his nurse.

It has to bring this man much pain

To bear the crumbling of his reign

And see his fortunes in reverse

Without his nurse.

Yes, Muammar now has to face

This hatred from the human race

And angry crowds that won't disperse

Without his nurse.

The banks freeze billions of his loot.

His people sorely want to boot

Him out, or put him in a hearse

Without his nurse.

Could Allah show a bit of mercy

And send poor Mu-Mu back his nursie?

In addition to food carts, there are tons of talented, artsy people in Portland. Any words of wisdom for local writers?

Go into insurance.

Grace Paley famously answered that with "Keep a low overhead."

Well, that's good advice, too. Possibly better.

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