May 26, 2008


i bought the tummy trilogy in 1999 and calvin trillin almost immediately became my most favoured writer about food. like the best, he is as concerned about the context (cultural, personal, historical) as he is about the food. or, as mfk fisher put it, "When I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and it is all one," because "there is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk."

in the trilogy, trillin writes rapturously about an unnamed greenwich village restaurant close to his apartment run by an unusual owner with a rigorous cooking and patronage policy and an enormous, multi-page, highly eclectic menu. it sounded like the archetypal Secret Restaurant In the Sky—eccentric, with unusual food and a distinctive style. entree gained not by vigorous applications of cash, but by local knowledge and the accumulation of time. (just like the restaurant john mcphee describes in "brigade de cuisine," the final essay in in giving good weight, a marvelous essay collection whose title piece is about the union square greenmarket). trillin could only write about the restaurant on condition of keeping it anonymous; this stymied and frustrated me until early 2002, when he revealed all (including the name) in a new yorker article. shopsin's was about to move to a new location after thirty years and, for the first time, sought publicity.

in spring 2003, i went to new york and, on a slow morning, went down to greenwich village to look for shopsin's in its new location on carmine street. i arrived just after they opened for lunch, there was no one there, and i had the most amazing chicken tortilla and bean soup. i thought about shopsin's again on december 28, 2007, while seeking a place for lunch; i decided then that shopsin's would always be there so i could just hit it up on my next trip to new york. naturally, it closed a few days after.

yesterday, lauren from atlanta came back from the aspen library with a small stack of DVDs—among them was a 2004 documentary by matt mahurin called i like killing flies, about shopsin's in the time of transition. it's a great film, well-directed, well-edited, with a superb, well-contained subject. the most visually-compelling part of the film is how it illustrates the way spaces form themselves around institutions of any size. the original shopsin's was tiny and seated just over 30 people; over three decades, it accumulated a crust of paraphernalia and objects that seemed light only by dint of the gradualness of its accretion. stripped of the stuff, the old restaurant looked naked; the new restaurant looked like a person wearing someone else's clothes.

more valuable was the exploration of something done right—not in the sense of something done by rote or process but something done right deep down to the essence of being; great ventures by great people. kenny shopsin explains that

it gets into a subject that really has not much to do with me but has to do with humanity ... the great lack in america, the great belief that was our flaw once we lost our christian backgrounds or whatever the fuck we had. we never intellectually, as a country, tried to figure out what the meaning of life is. and we still don't ... not that that's easy to achieve. am i with my busy work seeking to inject meaning into my life? the way that i choose to do this is to choose an arbitrary stupid goal and pursue it with vigor; and what happens to you in that pursuit is your life. i understand that the goal is stupid, but it's not stupid to pursue because it's the only way you can inject meaning into your life. otherwise you're left with this great 'why bother?'
craft (whether the production of mingei, or in engineering and the sciences, or in cooking), with its gradual accumulation of incremental technical competency, has been one pathway for people to get to the meaning of life.

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