April 11, 2019
This little bit got left on the cutting room floor in the editing process. But I thought you might be interested….
When my first interview with Calvin Trillin was printed in the Los Angeles Times in the mid-eighties I woke up in the middle of the night feeling sick. I’d misspelled his name, I was sure of it, and it was too late to fix it.
My nausea was so intense that by morning I could not even look at the paper. I drank my coffee, expecting an angry message from the celebrated writer. Any minute my editor would open the paper, and I waited, trembling, for the call that would end my career. “How could any decent reporter misspell Calvin Trillin’s name?” he would shout. “You’re fired!”
When I finally had the courage to look at the story I saw that Trillin was correctly spelled. My crazy nightmare was brought on by writing about someone I so deeply admired.
Calvin Trillin wasn’t just another writer who occasionally took food as his subject; he was the one who deflated the balloon, took the hot air out of food writing. And he did it without ever descending to being snide.
I’d been reading him for years, quoting him for years. He was the one who initiated the phrase “Maison de la casa…” and laughed at restaurants with menus bigger than your head. He celebrated regional dishes
That was a long time behind me, and over the years I’d come to know Mr. Trillin well enough to call him Bud. Still my hands were shaking now as I punched in his phone number. I really wanted him to write for Gourmet, and despite our friendship, I was not convinced he’d do it.
I did, however, have an ace in the hole. His name was Nick.
“So what did you and Bud do after the game?” I asked my son the first time the two vanished into Chinatown intent on beating New York’s most brilliant chicken at tic tac toe.
“Eat.” Nick was vague.
I pressed on. “Where?”
“In a restaurant.” Although Nick and Bud had a standing Chinatown date, my son remained maddeningly mum about the details. He would, occasionally, admit to having stopped in to see the Egg-Cake Lady, who baked irresistible little cookies in a sidewalk lean-to on Mosco Street. “I ate ten,” Nick told me once. “I just couldn’t stop. They’re hollow inside!”
Bud answered on the first ring. “Is it time to visit the chicken again?” he asked.
“I’m not calling about Nick,” I replied. “I have my editor’s hat on, and I’m hoping you’ll write for us.”
The ensuing silence was not promising. “You can write about anything you want,” I urged. “I’ll send you anywhere in the whole world.”
The silence continued, but at least I could hear him breathing. It seemed like a good sign. “Well,” Bud drew the word out into many syllables, “I did eat these fantastic peppers a couple of years ago in Spain. Pimientos de padron are sneaky; most are mild and flavorful, but every fifth pepper has real heat. I can’t stop thinking about them, but they’re not grown here. The only way you can get them is to go to Spain.”
“Spain!” I leapt on this idea before he could have second thoughts. “We’ll send you. How soon can you go?”
“If The New Yorker wants the story….” He was hedging, but I knew I had him. Back then The New Yorker rarely did food stories, and they would have no interest in sending a writer to Spain, at great expense, in search of some obscure pepper nobody had ever heard of.
I was thrilled to have Bud writing for Gourmet, and even more excited when the piece came in; he was an editor’s dream. Unlike most writers, a Trillin piece always arrived on time, at the right length, and with scrupulous documentation to back up every assertion.
Beyond that, everything he wrote had legs.
“Bud called,” Nick reported a year or so later when I got home from work.
“Are you going off to try and defeat the chicken again?”
“They retired the chicken,” he said, with some disgust. “Some animal rights group……”
“So what did he want?”
“He wants us to come eat pimientos de padron.”
“He wants us to go to Spain?”
“No!” Nick was gleeful. “There’s this guy in New Jersey who smuggled in pepper seeds from Spain, and now he’s growing them. He’s sending some to Bud. We’re going, right?”
Pimientos de Padron alla Trillin
When Bud’s story ran in November 1999, there was not a single pimiento de padron grown in the United States. Today farmers markets everywhere are filled with them. So begin by buying making a trip to a farmers market and purchasing your peppers.
If you are going to do this right, you then invite a group of friends to come to your house wearing indestructible clothing. Invitations sent, you hop on your bike and peddle to Chinatown, where you buy, in no particular order:
If you’re in a good mood you go on to Little Italy, where you purchase salami, prosciutto bread and really good parmesan cheese.
For your last stop you go to the local artisanal ice cream store.
You fill your refrigerator with beer and wine (preferably made by Bud’s good friend Bruce Neyers), and you set the takeout food out on platters.
You fill a large pot with Wesson Oil and allow your friends (if you’re very lucky this group will include Robert Sietsema), to take turns dropping the pimientos de padron into the hot oil for a couple of minutes until they wrinkle up. You put them on paper towel-lined plates, sprinkle them with salt, and eat them with gusto.
Categorised in: Uncategorized