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Feeding a Yen: Savoring Local Specialties from Kansas City to Cuzco by Calvin Trillin


Rating: (Recommended)


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When Calvin Trillin writes about food, I want to read and eat. His latest collection of essays, Feeding a Yen, satisfies my need for reading and eating quite well. Now that I’ve read this book, when I go to Nova Scotia, I want to eat Lunenberg sausage, and spread some of that Lunenberg pudding on crackers. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 5, Desperately Seeking Cerviche, pp. 54-9:

On a steamy afternoon during a particularly hot June in New York, I was standing just off a curb in midtown Manhattan, trying unsuccessfully to get a cab to La Guardia Airport. I found myself having thoughts about the city which would not have pleased the Convention and Visitors Bureau—thoughts about the weather, thoughts about the structural flaws of the New York taxi industry. Then, still with no free taxis in sight,

a Lincoln Town Car appeared in front of me. The uniformed driver lowered the window, and I was hit with frigid air.

"Where you going?" he said.

"La Guardia," I said.

"Twenty-five dollars."


I got in. The driver identified himself as Jose. As we made it over the bridge and hit the Grand Central Parkway, he told me that he was from Ecuador, a country I had visited a few months before. I told him how much I'd enjoyed Ecuador—the gorgeous mountains, the markets, the climate that some have described as eternal spring, and, most of all, the ceviche.

Ceviche in Ecuador, I said, is to American ceviche what the seafood cocktails of Veracruz—oysters, shrimp, snails, octopus, crab, avocado, onions, and coriander chopped in front of your eyes into a liquid that in a just world would be what Bloody Mary mix tastes like—are to those balsa-wood and ketchup combinations that people in country club dining rooms get when they order the shrimp cocktail appetizer. (When I visited Veracruz with Abigail, she noticed that the purveyor of a particularly complicated seafood cocktail called Vwlve a la Vida, or Return to Life, described its curative powers in almost precisely the same terms as were used by a man who went from table to table in the outdoor cafes of the central square, offering a shock from a contraption that looked alarmingly like jumper cables. They could both be right.) Ecuadorian ceviche starts out with fresh fish cured by being marinated in lemon juice and enlivened by whatever else the chef has thought to add. It's liquid, like a bowl of tangy cold soup. Roasted corn kernels (flicked off Andean corn, whose kernels are sometimes the size of broad beans) are served on the side, to be tossed in for both flavor and crunch. Some restaurants offer as accompaniment not only roasted corn kernels but popcorn. Yes, popcorn—what less fortunate humans eat at the movies!


"You like that ceviche?" Jose asked. He sounded pleased, but mildly surprised, like an artist who has just heard effusive praise of a painting that is actually one of his earlier works.

"I love that ceviche, Jose," I said. "I would probably kill for that ceviche."

"When's your plane? "Jose asked.

"Oh, I've got time," I said. I had left myself a buffer for finding a taxi and grumbling about the city.

Instantly, he swerved off the Grand Central, and we were driving along a commercial street in Queens. Most of the signs on the stores were in Spanish. Some were in Chinese or Korean. In five minutes, we turned onto a side street, in front of a restaurant called Islas Galapagos.

We asked for two orders of ceviche. I ordered a cold Ecuadorian beer. We cleaned our bowls. Then we got back into the car and drove to La Guardia. "This is a great city, Jose," I said, as I hauled my baggage out of the icy splendor of his Town Car. "A little hot sometimes, but a great city."


On the other hand, the sort of New Yorker who's confident that even a stroke of good fortune can be complained about might point out that I had to go all the way to Queens to find Ecuadorian ceviche. At the time I met Jose, I'd almost never had a ceviche close to home. In New York, I had never even seen roasted corn kernels—what Ecuadorians sometimes call tostados and Peruvians call concha. (They are neither roasted nor toasted, of course, but pan-fried, then salted, so that they're crunchy on the outside and soft, almost powdery, on the inside.) A couple of ceviches I'd had in Manhattan actually came accompanied by commercial C.0rnnuts, which, being approximately the right size and color, serve as a substitute for concha about as effectively as marshmallows, being approximately the right size and color, would serve as a substitute for fresh Nova Scoria scallops.

Eventually, ceviche became more widely available in Manhattan. Around the rime of my La Guardia adventure, Douglas Rodriguez brought it into the mainstream at Patria, and he later installed an entire ceviche bar at Chicama, complete with popcorn. I've even read about a Manhattan restaurant that offers a sort of pour la table ceviche appetizer for fifty dollars—an amount of money that in Ecuador would buy you enough ceviche to pickle your innards. Srill, as the years passed, I thought more and more about another trip to serious ceviche country—which could mean, of course, almost anywhere in Latin America. When FBI agents tapped the prison phone calls of the former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, one conversation that made them suspect that he was employing a devilishly clever code concerned a ceviche recipe. Ceviche is entrenched in Mexico; Rick Bayless, a scholar of Mexican food, has been serving it, usually made from marlin, since he opened Frontera Grill in Chicago in 1986. There is wide agreement, though, that the red-hot center of ceviche caring is around Ecuador and Peru—two countries that, after several decades, more or less settled their border dispute but continued to argue about who does the best job with marinated fish.

About five years after that serendipitous journey to La Guardia with Jose, I decided I had to go to Ecuador and Peru to get a booster shot of the real article. A number of people asked me if I really intended to travel all that way just to eat ceviche. Not at all. In Peru, for instance, I was looking forward to sampling the stuffed pepper that many consider the signature dish of Arequipa, and I fully intended to have my share of Andean potatoes. I thought I might tuck away some churros—possibly some churros with chocolate on them. I still remembered a couple of the soups I'd had during my first trip to Ecuador while staying at a charming inn called Hacienda Cusin, near the great Andean market town of Otavalo, and I thought I might see about arranging a reprise. I was seriously considering guinea pig, which is such a strong regional specialty around Cuzco that the most famous seventeenth-century religious painting in the Cuzco cathedral shows it as what Jesus and his disciples are about to eat at the Last Supper. I also had visions of sitting in a comfortable hotel bar somewhere sipping pisco sours while tossing down handfuls of concha and expressing sympathy for travelers who were at that moment at other hotel bars all around the world trying to make do with mixed nuts. No, I assured the people questioning my trip, I wasn't going all that way just to eat ceviche. I like to think of myself as a broad-gauged person.

Abigail, who persisted in living in San Francisco, agreed to meet me in Peru, and Alice said she 'd link up with us in Quito. When I dropped into Chicama to ask Douglas Rodriguez for some tips about where to eat down there, he said he 'd prefer to show us himself—actually, what he did was to get himself so worked up with a description of the ceviche available in an Ecuadorian seaside town called Salinas that he suddenly shouted, "I'm going with you!"—and we arranged to meet him and his wife and his publisher and the ceviche-bar chef from Chicama in Guayaquil for a couple of days of sampling.

We had become the ceviche gang.

When unable to find a food for which he has the yen, Trillin adds it to the “Register of Frustration and Deprivation.” Then, efforts intensify to feed that yen, one way or another. Pick up a copy of Feeding a Yen, and follow Trillin on his decades-old journey to feeding his yen.

Steve Hopkins, June 21, 2003


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the July 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: a Yen.htm


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