My Favorite Things: Calvin Trillin
Today, Off the Grid features the second entry in a new series, “My Favorite Things,” in which we highlight the architecture, history, people, and businesses of the Village, East Village, and NoHo.
Calvin Trillin, a resident of Greenwich Village since the 1960s, has just published his 25th book, Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: Forty Years of Funny Stuff. The milestone calls to mind his wonderful essay about a family tradition from the 1970s, Sunday morning walks with his children to the food shops of East Houston Street. The piece, published in The New Yorker in 2000, is called The Magic Bagel. The subtitle reads, “If I found it again, would my daughter change her life?” Translation: If a doting father could find the “gnarly little dark pumpernickel bagels” that a daughter loved as a child, would she move from San Francisco back to Greenwich Village where she belonged? It’s a food story, a detective story, and a love story. And it’s set in some wonderful places downtown.
The pumpernickel bagels came from Tanenbaum’s, at 183 E. Houston. Mr. Trillin writes:
“When my daughters were children, bagels were not only their staple food but also the food of important rituals. On Sunday mornings, I often took them to Houston Street, on the Lower East Side. At Russ & Daughters, which is what New Yorkers call an appetizer store, we would buy Nova Scotia salmon–a transaction that took some time, since the daughters (of Joel Russ, the founder, who stared down at us from a splendid portrait on the wall) had to quit slicing fish now and then to tell me in glorious detail how adorable my girls were. Then we’d go next door to Ben’s Dairy to get cream cheese and a delicacy known as baked farmer’s cheese with scallions. Then we were at Tanenbaum’s, a bakery that was probably best known for a large, dark loaf often referred to as Russian health bread. We were not there for Russian health bread.”
As the Trillin girls grew up and then moved away, the Lower East Side changed from no-go to go-go. Ben’s Dairy and Tanenbaum’s are long gone. According to the Villager, rent for a storefront at 183 E. Houston rose from a total of $75 per month in the 70s to an ask of $145 — per square foot — after the space was renovated in 2003. Happily, Russ & Daughters is still going strong in its 98th year and still hand-slicing salmon. (They offer the baked farmer’s cheese of Ben’s Dairy, too, plus hand-rolled bagels, fresh cream cheese, and the latest in bagel enhancement: wasabi-infused flying fish roe.)
In his quest for the magic bagel, Mr. Trillin enlists the help of R&D’s third generation: Mark Russ Federman. A son of Anne, the middle Daughter, he left a career as a lawyer to return to his spawning ground. (“Family businesses are no respecters of degrees,” writes Mr. Trillin). The trail leads, via “Danny of the bialys,” to Mrs. Poznanski, the widow of the original wholesale supplier in Williamsburg. I won’t say any more; it’s Mr. Trillin’s story, and he tells it best.
Like many of the icons of Greenwich Village, Calvin Trillin is originally from elsewhere, born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1935. His career started with reporting for Time bureaus in London, Paris, Tunisia, Atlanta (where he covered the Freedom Rides of 1961) and New York. After he joined The New Yorker in 1963, he and his wife, the late Alice Trillin, bought a house in Greenwich Village. He lives there to this day. A superb humorist, Mr. Trillin is a popular guest on Charlie Rose and last week had Jon Stewart in stitches on The Daily Show. (For insight on how to be that funny, read him on the hard work of humor in The Paris Review.)
The Sunday food forays have inspired Mr. Trillin’s annual October walking tour of amazing eats in the Village and the LES. Called “Come Hungry,” it’s part of The New Yorker Festival and sells out online in a nanosecond. Those who score tickets are nimble with the “refresh” command (it’s go-go or no-go). Fortunately for the rest of us, the tour has been blogged and covered in the Times.
Mr. Trillin doesn’t really write about food, but around it. “I’m not interested in finding the best chili restaurant in Cincinnati. I’m interested in Cincinnatians fighting about who has the best chili.” It’s the same with the Village. In a piece about fatherhood, he’ll mention school plays at P.S. 3, “one of the romantically named grade schools in the Village.” The author bio of Quite Enough reads, “Calvin Trillin lives in Greenwich Village, a neighborhood where people from the suburbs come on weekends to test their car alarms.”
If you’re thinking there’s no such thing as quite enough of this wonderful writer, please join us on November 7 for the GVSHP’s fall benefit, Much Ado about Noshing, featuring Calvin Trillin in conversation with Mark Russ Federman of Russ & Daughters (now owner emeritus) and the fourth-generation co-owners, Niki Russ Federman and her cousin, Josh Russ Tupper. Also on the bill: the legendary smoked salmon, hand-sliced by the man Mr. Trillin has praised in print as “Herman the Artistic Slicer.” Plus blinis with crème fraîche and French trout roe, and mini Super Heebsters, and pickled herring with mustard sauce on new potatoes…be sure to come hungry both for food and for funny stuff.
The Magic Bagel is available online. It is anthologized in Feeding a Yen by Calvin Trillin and in Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink by David Remnick.