I’ve wrestled with the Calvin Trillin in my head for hours and I have come up with the following conclusion: (1) I can do this post because (a) Calvin Trillin’s “Come Hungry” tour isn’t about giving away secrets it’s about (i) spending time with Calvin Trillin, (ii) having food presented to you without having to wait for it, and (iii) enjoying the most exclusive, sought after New Yorker Festival experience you can have next to watching John Updike’s interpretative dance on the more subtle aspects of “Madame Bovary.” In other words, doing this post will not diminish or hurt this tour’s popularity: I’m merely going to share with the masses what happens when you go on the tour, what you see, hear and eat, and it will most likely (i) make people want to go on the tour more than they did before and (ii) clue people into some great New York eats. And so, Calvin Trillin In My Head, consider yourself pinned. Here’s an in-depth account of the “Come Hungry” tour.
[Note: The picture above is from a set of press pictures sent to me by Emily of Emdashes, the New Yorker blog. She is eagerly awaiting the account I’m about to write. If you study the picture carefully (and here’s the larger version) you can pick me out (dressed in my “Where’s Waldo?” finest) and Craig as Calvin Trillin speaks into his Madonna mic.]
The first question everyone asks when I tell them that I snagged two tickets for the “Come Hungry” tour (which notoriously sells out in 30 seconds) is: “HOW DID YOU DO IT!?” The answer is simple. I sat on my computer at 11:50, went to the appropriate Ticketmaster page and kept reloading it until 12 PM rolled around. Immediately I entered my info and immediately requested two tickets and, miraculously, they were available. I’d tried this for the past few years and it never happened. But this year it did and I was oh so happy. Calvin Trillin is my favorite food writer.
At the end of the tour, during the Dim Sum feast (which you’ll see later) other tour-goers confessed their secret tactics. One lady, who shall remain anonymous, told us that she and her husband both were on the phone with Ticketmaster at 11:55 and they were both connected to the Ticketmaster page and constantly refreshing it like I did. Obviously one of these channels came through and they snagged their tickets that way.
However you get your tickets (and they’re worth trying for if only for the thrill you get when you actually get them) the next part is fun. You receive your tickets in the mail and it says “call this # for venue information.” You see, the meeting point for the tour is top secret. I called the number and was shocked to find it was the general Ticketmaster number. They put me on hold for what seemed like forever and I gave up. I’d call closer to the date.
But closer to the date an e-mail came with the requisite information. Here’s what the e-mail said, minus the requisite information:
Dear “Come Hungry” ticket buyer, This e-mail is to indicate the meeting place for the “Come Hungry” New Yorker Festival event on Sunday, October 8th, at 1 P.M. Please meet Festival staff in the *****. Please note that this e-mail is strictly confidential and intended only for the ticket holders to the “Come Hungry New Yorker Festival event.
So as you can see, this event has the aura of a celebrity wedding. It really makes you feel mighty and powerful and special and in possession of a great secret. This is how Craig and I felt as we made our way to the meeting point, yesterday, at 1 PM. When we got there it was obvious that everyone else had the same feeling of specialness. We were all giddy. And there was Calvin Trillin, off to the side, being fitted with his Madonna head mic. Up close, like this, he looks deceptive grumpy. But, I’ve learned from other sources that he’s a shy person so his grumpiness may have been a mask. Either way, we were all antsy for the tour to begin. New Yorker festival workers (and there were several, including a security person) handed us bottled water and maps of where we’d be going. Then we heard Calvin’s voice say, “Is this thing on?” And thus the tour began.
Calvin speaks softly and purposefully. He has stories to tell, he has information to share. He began by telling us about our tour route, how it was going to work and a little history of where we’d be going. Craig and I were under the false impression that this was going to be a tour of Chinatown, but, we quickly learned, this was to be a tour of the Village, SoHo, Little Italy and then, finally, Chinatown. Our first destination surprised me because it was a place I’d been several times but not for the reason we were going there now. The first stop, on this tour, was Home on Cornelia Street and the reason we were going was for salami. Salami and cheese.
Salami & Wisconsin Cheese at Home, 20 Cornelia Street (between Bleecker and West 4th Streets)
So, as I said above, part of the joy of this tour (in addition to Calvin’s narrative) is the way food is immediately brought to you. There’s no waiting in line, there’s no fussing over tables and chairs and waiters and waitresses. Here, upon reaching Home, we were immediately presented with platters of salami and cheese:
Calvin explained that the salami at Home is home-made (no pun intended). He praised their salami for its freshness and flavor and then went on to say that Home also made terrific homemade ketchup, “but they stopped selling it in jars like they used to. You used to be able to buy it in little mason jars but you no longer can.”
The salami, indeed, was excellent. And in combination with the cheese and some kind of vinegary pesto on the toasted bread, it was a terrific way to start. “I’m going to have two,” said Craig.
“Don’t fill up,” I chastised.
Craig didn’t listen.
Calvin led us along Cornelia street (“A great food street,” he said. “It has Pearl, one of my favorite restaurants; it has Po, Mario Batali’s first restaurant, and there’s a French place too.”)
A funny aspect of this tour is that the sound from Calvin’s mic travels to a large speaker being pushed by a New Yorker festival worker. So the sound is loudly amplified and as we walked down the street, and as Trillin spoke, heads turned to see where the noise was coming from. This happened to extreme comic effect on the corner of Bleecker on Carmine where Trillin explained the history of the church and all these heads turned–diners eating outside–to find the source of this strangely amplified but low-key voice.
“Shopsin’s is down the street,” said Trillin. “I wrote an article about a few years back.” He then shared some of the article highlights, including Kenny Shopsin’s rule about not copying. “If you say ‘I want what that guy’s having,'” chuckled Trillin, “The waitress will say, ‘No copying.'”
We continued on our way until we reached the corner of 6th Avenue and King where we were presented with the famous Green Sandwich that Trillin writes about in “Feeding a Yen.”
Green Sandwich (delivered) Find It At: Cart on Southwest corner of Forsyth and East Broadway, under the Manhattan Bridge.
When I first read Trillin’s account of this sandwich it didn’t excite me the way it excited him. How good could sauteed greens be on a sesame bun? I mean even if the greens are the best greens in the world and even if the bun is the best bun in the world, how good could that taste? Well this is why you go on the Come Hungry tour: so you can taste for yourself what you’ve been missing. And in this case I was missing a whole lot.
The sandwich is an extraordinary balancing act of the salty and the sweet, the spicy and the cool, the crisp and the soft. It’s very difficult to describe. Yes it tastes like greens on a bun but oh so much more: it comes together in a sort of harmony. To eat this sandwich, championed by Trillin, in the presence of Trillin himself is truly a treat.
(There were extras and Craig put one in his bag to bring back to Diana but, ummm, Craig if you’re reading this: remember that sandwich in your bag? It probably smells really bad by now.)
The next stop on the tour didn’t excite me like the others because (a) I’d been to this stop before and (b) I’d eaten what we were going to eat there when I was there the first time. The stop was what was formerly known as The Sullivan Street Bakery. Yes, The Sullivan Street Bakery has changed it’s name to, in my opinion, something awful. Now it’s called Grandaisy. What the hell kind of name is that? Either way, we came here for pizza.
Pizza at Grandaisy, 73 Sullivan Street (between Spring and Broome Streets)
The pizza at Grandaisy isn’t pizza like you know pizza. It’s a square bread topped with potatoes and rosemary:
Despite the fact I’d had it before, it still tastes pretty excellent. It’s a strange combination of starches–potatoes and bread–and it’s nicely salted and seasoned with the rosemary. I can’t remember what Trillin had to say about this pizza outside the fact that it’s not pizza like we know it and that Sullivan Street changed its name. I do remember, however, him talking earlier about Italian New Yorkers going to bake their bread in communal ovens. So people would mark the top of their loaves with a signature design that was like a coat of arms. An interesting fact, especially for those, like me, who frequently see the Virgin Mary in their toast.
The next stop on the tour was one you should mark down in your little book of Places You Will Go To Now That You’ve Read This Post. The place is DiPalo Fine Foods and we went their for Fresh Mozzarella.
Fresh Mozzarella at DiPalo Fine Foods, 206 Grand Street (at corner of Mott Street)
The best things in life are often the simplest and the cheese at DiPalo’s is no exception. As Trillin led us past gangs of motorcyclists gunning their engines, he told us that DiPalo’s gets very busy on the weekends–“you can’t even get in there,” he said. Luckily, our mozzarella was pre-arranged and presented to us, as everything else had been, on platters.
Up close, they look like giant white discs:
But don’t let their plainness deceive you. Eating mozzarella like this makes you realize how bad the mozzarella you normally eat is: this was fresh and clear-tasting, milky and salty and a perfect texture. Definitely check this out.
But the next stop, the next bit of food, was absolutely a knock-out. And it’s also the most obscure and difficult to find. (Aren’t you glad I’m doing this post?)
Vietnamese Sandwich at Saigon Banh Mi, 138 Mott St. (between Grand and Hester Streets)
The best bite of our tour is hidden at the back of a jewelry store on Mott Street. We didn’t get a chance to go in (and the crowds were intense, so I’m glad we didn’t have to) but instead we were presented with choices of either “hot” or “mild” sandwiches. I chose the mild because I’m a wimp and I did not regret my choice. While not hot or spicy, this sandwich–a severe sandwich, in both form and content–was PACKED with flavor:
Every element was perfect. The bread was perfect. The salad part was perfect. And the meat–what was that?! pork? but how was it cooked?–was perfect. I loved this sandwich and so did Craig. “We have to come back here,” he said. “This is a great one to know about.”
At this point in our tour we were getting full. This led to lots of laughter when Calvin Trillin said, “Ok, only two more stops and then we’ll have lunch.”
It’s difficult to remember all the details of Trillin’s talk. What mattered was being in his presence, to spend time near him and to share the food that he is most enthusiastic about. But because I knew I might be writing about this, and because I knew I’d probably forget most of what he said, I decided to grab a tiny video on my camera of Trillin talking about the frogs you can buy across the street. Here’s that clip posted on YouTube:
And here’s my attempt to transcribe what he’s saying: “Ummm the barrel’s full of frogs…which will lead people to inspect them…I don’t know what you’d look for in a frog….(can’t understand).”
And, finally, here’s a picture of the frogs he’s talking about:
Foolishly, I thought these were also samples for us to try and I grabbed one and only after biting its head off did I realize that I was the only one doing it! Trillin shot me a glance and I quickly spit my frog guts into a napkin. Just kidding!
Ok, so two more stops before lunch. And they are:
Fried Pork Dumplings at Fried Dumplings, 106 Mosco Street (between Mott and Mulberry Streets)
If you are poor and you want to experience some of this food, look no further. These dumplings are 5 for $1 and they are terrific. Look:
Some things are just basically pleasing and these dumplings are no exception. They hit the spot though, to be honest, that spot had been hit so many times by this point I was getting too full–too full for school. (Craig and I decided to only have one dumpling each instead of the two each we were entitled to. I hope we didn’t lose status in Calvin Trillin’s eyes.)
The final bite before lunch, then, was:
Rice Noodle Roll-Ups at New South Wind Coffee Shop, 21 Division Street (at Catherine Street)
On the way Trillin made us laugh when he pointed out a game parlor with “Tic-Tac-Toe” on the sign. Apparently, there used to be a chicken there that would play humans in Tic-Tac-Toe. On previous tours, he told us, people would say, “But it’s not fair. The chicken gets to go first.”
“But you’re a human,” Trillin would reply. “And that’s a chicken.”
“But he gets to practice all day,” they’d retort.
We found this funny and then we were face to face with rice noodle roll-ups.
These were nice, superbly made, and I’m sure if I’d had them earlier in the day I would have relished them. But as it was I only took a few bites and threw mine away. “I’m so full it hurts,” I told Craig.
“I don’t think I can eat lunch,” he agreed.
We made our way under the bridge on our way to Dim Sum. This whole under-the-bridge Chinatown culture is good to experience first hand with a tour guide. It’s the sort of thing you’d probably not do on your own, you not wanting to get lost in such a strange area (and look at this dramatic picture I took):
But now that I’ve been, I’ll definitely go back. All the food we walked passed looked really good–it’s worth seeing.
Here, I’ve made an executive decision not to reveal the final destination, the place where we had our final lunch. The reasons being: (1) this is probably where the tour ends every year, so they probably don’t want people to crash it; (2) it’s got sentimental value for Trillin, being the place where his daughter wanted to get married. So we’ll leave it a secret (and who knows? Maybe it’s not a secret; maybe it’s common knowledge. And I bet you can find it if you seek Dim Sum under the bridge.) But for the purpose of sharing, here’s a picture of the food they presented us:
And for the purpose of confession, I will confess that I had about two bites and that I was done for.
When it was all done, Trillin moved from one table to another but not to ours. So I decided to go introduce myself to him. After all, he’s the reason I got into food writing–discovering his book “Feeding A Yen” revealed to me that you could be funny and serious and emotional about food all at once. I told him my name and shook his hand and told him I had a great time.
“Glad you enjoyed it,” he said.
Craig and I walked down the stairs and made our way on to the street, back into the world.
“That was so fun,” he said.
“It was,” I agreed. And with that, The Calvin Trillin Tour behind us, we headed back into the city, back into reality, vowing that we’d never, never ever, never ever eat again.