Late on Sunday morning some 200 food lovers paid $30 a piece to hear Calvin Trillin and Adam Gopnik talk about Canadian comestibles. If there was anyone counting on a weighty discussion on the state of food in this country, they would have been sorely disappointed. Trillin, 77, and Gopnik, 56, were like old friends sitting on a porch catching up, telling tales and throwing zingers. And from the sounds of the applause and belly-shaking laughter from the mostly silver-haired audience that punctuated the 80-minute talk, everyone left fully satiated.
What gives these accomplished writers–Gopnik is the author of eight books and has been a New Yorker contributor since 1986, while Trillin will celebrate his 50th anniversary as a New Yorker contributor next year–the know-how to discuss this country’s food affairs? Well, explained Gopnick, ”we are both greedy guys who like to eat, and we’re both semi-Canadian.” He was raised in Montreal, while Trillin has spent the past 39 years summering at his Nova Scotia home.
That’s precisely where Trillin, who grew up in Kansas City, had his first real Canadian food experience: “Being able to get fresh fish off the boat. You either learn to clean the fish or not eat the fish.” Nova Scotia is also where Trillin does a little cooking. An abundance of good ingredients means he can do it simply. Take his smoked mackerel pâté–one of the three to eight dishes, “depending on how you count,” Trillin can prepare. All you have to do is blitz the fish in a food processor. (On special occasions, like Canada Day, he might add a little mayonnaise and a perhaps a squeeze of lemon.)
The author, who won over the crowd the moment he walked onto the stage in in his navy blue blazer with brass buttons, served up warm, poetic anecdotes (Craig Claiborne once refered to him as “the Walt Whitman of American eats,”) with a side of dry, deadpan humour. Case in point: “We only ate leftovers at my house growing up. The original meal was never found. We even had a team of anthropologists looking for it.”
Gopnik presented Trillin with a plate of Montreal bagels flown in that morning from St. Viateur. “Even the best New York bagel is doughy and neutral-tasting compared to a Montreal bagel, which is wonderfully dense,” taunted Gopnik to Trillin, who lives in the same Greenwich Village house that he bought 50 years ago with his wife, Alice, who passed away in 2001. Gopnik confessed he can’t eat a New York City bagel. In fact, recently he searched Brooklyn for a Montreal-style bagel. He found two: The first “still had a kind of passive doughiness that had entered into its DNA.” The second was from a restaurant (Mile End Delicatessen in Boerum Hill, I’d wager) that has its bagels flown in once a week from–you guessed it–St. Viateur.
“That’s sort of like eating fried chicken in Marseilles,” Trillin said of the hunt.
“The real lesson about the superiority of Montreal bagels and smoked meat is a lesson about ethnic power,” explained Gopnik. “They stay here, without getting homogenized.” It’s a good point, but one could argue that a little homogenization has its virtues: After all, we wouldn’t have spaghetti and meatballs, pepperoni pizza and chicken parmigian’ if Italian Americans were timid when it came to adapting their homeland’s dishes.
Next, Gopnik brought out a plate of Schwartz’s smoked meat — ”It has to be medium.” He went on to explain that wherever Jews settled, they took smoked meat. It blossomed into different forms. London got salt beef (too salty, he says); Americans got pastrami, “overloaded with everything and ends up tasting like a hotdog,” while Montreal has smoked meat — “the perfect balance.”
Whether you like French fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds or not (but how couldn’t you?), no discussion of Canadian food would be complete without talk of poutine. Gopnik suggested it might have grown from its humble roots into a possible tourist trap. Trillin wasn’t so sure. He compared poutine’s current de rigueur reputation to pizza, which became gourmet thanks to Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck who experimented with fancy toppings in the ’70s. So too with poutine, Trillin noted, thanks in large part to Martin Picard’s foie gras-topped version at Au Pied de Cochon.
Gopnik argued that ice wine should be the national dish of Canada. ”Never had it,” Trillin replied. Gopnik went on to describe the process by which its made–and its saccharine nature. “Why would I taste that?” Trillin asked. Gopnik relayed that it had recently won the title of “greatest sweet wine in the world.” Replied Trilling: “That sound like somebody being recognized for being the greatest Jewish hockey player.”
Gopnik still did not give up. “Ice wine is the perfect metaphor of Canada,” he explained.”It’s largely ignored, it’s made under extenuating circumstances and it’s intensely polite but vigourously enveloping of all human beings.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” said Trillin.
After an hour on stage, Gopnik invited questions. One woman thanked Trillin for the years of endearing, hilarious and nearly countless prose. “I didn’t know my cousin would be able to come today,” replied Trillin, whose Tummy Trilogy–a collection of three books written in the 1970s and early ’80s, broke down the barrier between serious food and the pleasure of food. He went on to pitch-perfectly describe his writing style: ”I think of it as sort of a vernacular of food writing, connected to places and people.”
Sidetracked once more by bagels, Gopnik asked if anyone had tried to make them at home. One women put up her hand — Gopnik’s mother, as it turned out. When he joked that she was not really very successful in her attempts, she responded, “Well, there are other things that I do well. You’re here, aren’t you?”
Trillin and Gopnik later signed books for eager fans, including me. Handing over my copy of his new book, Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: Forty Years of Funny Stuff I asked Trillin about the 15 years he spent filing food stories to the New Yorker, tracking down supremely good regional dishes, like clam chowder, po’ boy sandwiches, fried chicken and barbecue. Nowadays, with our obsession for food nostalgia, comfort food has been glorified (a new restaurant in Toronto, for example, serves hot crab dip with Triscuits, a popular East coast party treat. And just try to find a place not serving up a dish in a Mason jar.) It’s become a trend. Do we run a risk of ruining simple food by trying to gussy it up?
Trillin looked up from his inscription. “If they make a good version of it, then who cares?”
Sunday’s conversation was the first literary event of Luminato, a nine-day Toronto arts and creativity festival in its sixth year, held in the Distillery District’s Michael Young Theatre.