Four gastro-memoirs in, and Calvin Trillin still refers to himself as an amateur food writer. His humorous explorations of American cuisine, including Alice, Let's Eat, American Fried and Feeding a Yen introduced wide audiences to everything from Buffalo wings to the perfect New York bagel - "gnarly, black pumpernickel bagels we used to have at Tannenbaum's."
The veteran journalist and author - he has more than 25 books to his credit - is one of the few American writers who not only knows where Canada is but actually spends part of every year here, at his cottage in Nova Scotia. His most recent article for The New Yorker was all about that Canadian frat boy staple, poutine.
The Globe and Mail spoke to him as he prepared last week to moderate the annual Leacock debate at the University of Toronto's Hart House. This year's proposition? "Poutine should be declared the national dish of Canada." (The opposition won.)
What idiosyncracies have you witnessed regarding Canadians and food?
Canadians are very well behaved, they don't throw their food. Let me tell you about Shelly Stevens, though. She was a good friend of my daughter. They spent every summer together in Nova Scotia. Shelly Stevens ate banana peels. That's pretty idiosyncratic. She may not eat them as a grownup but she certainly did as a child.
What are some of your favourite food haunts in Canada?
I have very few because I live in a place that's not known for its restaurants, rural Nova Scotia. We've spent every summer there since 1972. I like Magnolia's Grill in Lunenberg and The Innlet [Café]in Mahone Bay. I go there for one dish, what they call a scallop burger. In the States a scallop burger would be chopped up scallop meat formed into a patty, but there they sear whole scallops. They are so good that I don't actually eat scallops outside of Nova Scotia now. The pea meal bacon sandwiches at the St. Lawrence Market are very good. When I'm in Toronto I usually just eat at the Leacock dinner at Hart House.
Don't you get wined and dined?
No, no one ever calls me. I just cry in my room or stare out the window eating a banana I grabbed from the hotel's fitness centre.
What made you start writing about food?
I don't think I've ever read a food piece or a food book. I don't cook. I don't have any serious interest in the subject. I started writing about food because of barbecue and where I grew up in Kansas City. I'm an amateur food writer. I actually don't know anything about it. I've never reviewed a restaurant. I've never been interested in fine dining.
What interests me is what you might call vernacular writing, writing that connects you to a place. I was interested in the fact that people in Cincinnati argue about where to get the best chili, but to decide whether Empress chili is better than Skyline chili, that's not what I do. People in central Florida don't like farm-raised catfish, it doesn't taste muddy enough for them. What interests me is what ties people to a place and one of those things is food.
What was your first experience with poutine?
I ate it here in Toronto at the chip wagon in front of City Hall. I had heard of poutine but had never been tempted to try it until I saw the halal chip wagon. It was Afghan poutine. Then I had it again last year at Jamie Kennedy's, it was very good.
Americans love their junk food; why haven't they embraced poutine the way they have other imports like pizza and tacos?
There is one place on the Lower East Side in New York called T Poutine and there's a place in Brooklyn called Mile End that does it, they also import smoked meat and bagels from Montreal. Some people blame me for popularizing Buffalo chicken wings. When I wrote about them way back when no one had heard of them. Maybe the same will happen with poutine.
You once wrote that your daughter would smuggle a bagel in her purse whenever you went to eat in Chinatown just in case. What do you think about Montreal bagels as compared to New York bagels?
First, I regret that my daughter still meets people who thinks she carries bagels into Chinatown. When visiting my family in Kansas City when she was five she said to me, "How come the bagels here taste like round bread?" That's when I knew she had potential. New York and Montreal bagels are two different animals. Montreal bagels don't taste like bagels if you're used to New York bagels. They have a sweetness to them.
If you had to get a food tattoo what would it be?
That's a Barbara Walters question but I'm not going to cry. Getting a tattoo would probably make me cry. A poutine tattoo wouldn't look very handsome. Broccoli would probably look better, but I'm not wild about broccoli. I'd probably get something to do with barbecue. A barbecued rib.
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