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A taste for the bitter turns sweet in Calvin Trillin's hands

People who love to read about eating know journalist and novelist Calvin Trillin primarily as the astute and funny food chronicler who spent the 1970s writing a series called "The American Journal" for the New Yorker Magazine. Trillin traveled the country to tell the story behind the kinds of slightly nutty foods that causes people to become fanatics like, for instance, an special Italian fried pepper sandwich or a a fabulous pierogi or, memorably, the Buffalo Chicken Wing.

He's the guy who looked at cuisine with a clear but jaded eye. The guy who once said "Health food makes me sick" and "When it comes to Chinese food I have always operated under the policy that the less known about the preparation the better."

And, truly wonderfully, during the heyday of all those restaurants posed at unnatural heights on space needles and such: "I never eat in a restaurant that's over a hundred feet off the ground and won't stand still." Trillin is also the author of what is sometimes called "The Tummy Trilogy," three gastronomical books including "American Fried," "Alice, Let's Eat" and "Travels with Alice." Alice was Trillin's late wife whom he always cast in the role in his books as "the mom, the voice of reason, the sensible person who kept everything on an even keel despite the antics of her marginally goofy husband."

He described her as the wife "who had a weird predilection for limiting our family to three meals a day."

A friend once described the way he portrayed his family as "like Burns and Allen except she's George and and he's Gracie."

But actually Alice was more than that.

She was an educator, a writer and a stunningly beautiful woman who was her husband's muse. In the first book he wrote after her death in 2001, the dedication read: "I wrote this for Alice. Actually I wrote everything for Alice." And it was true.

This short tribute to her which appeared in part in the New Yorker, describes the romance of the couple who first met at a party in New York City with Trillin desperately trying to to impress a young woman "who seemed to glow."

"You have never again been as as funny as you were that night," he reports Alice would say some 20 or 30 years later.

"You mean I peaked in December of 1963?" he'd respond.

The answer: "I'm afraid so."

While the book is desperately sad, it also manages to be joyous. I guess the proper word is "bittersweet."

Note: Also being published later this month is a reissue of the 1978 Trillin classic, "Alice Let's Eat" (Random House Trade Paperback, $12.95). If you've never read it, you're in for a treat.

Janice Okun is The News' Food Editor.


About Alice

by Calvin Trillin, above with Alice

Random House, 78 pages, $14.95

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