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World Enough and Time: Eating

Bill Hagen
The book that started it all

New Year’s doesn’t belong in the middle of winter.

Let the football games proceed, but, really, does a casting off of the Old and beginning something New happen for you?

When you awake on New Year’s Day with full resolve to keep resolutions for the new year—in spite of a possible hangover—does Nature affirm your resolve with sunshine and flowers? Of course not! Better to place New Year’s sometime in Spring, perhaps once the daffodils are making a show. An invitation for you to flower as well.

No, what we want to do in mid-winter is to stay warm in our homes, sleeping and eating. Like our cousins, the bears and ground hogs. When Spring arrives, we can make resolutions we will keep.

This all came to me when I started reading a big collection of Calvin Trillin’s essays, entitled “The Tummy Trilogy.” A food book for mid-winter.

One is won over by his style, his sense of humor, and the fact that he seeks out the best of local cuisine, whether in a big city or a small town. Half the fun is reading how he found the places—like finding the best barbecue mutton in Owensboro, Kentucky.

Trillin is at his peak on comfort food: chili, French fries, crawfish, and hamburgers. He’s not afraid of superlatives: best fried chicken at a potluck in Cherokee County, Georgia; best hamburger found in Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City; Cincinnati as the best small city for French restaurants (three with five-star ratings); Nathan’s in Coney Island, more known for hot dogs, as having the best crinkly French fries (because they get their potatoes from Maine), while Bryant’s (again) in Kansas City for the best smooth French fries.

Those are enough examples. I hope you appreciate how much tasty information is packed in the previous paragraph. Still, I forebear to commit simply because Trillin said so. Why?

Well, the essays containing that information were published in 1974 and 1978.

But surely a Calvin Trillin recommendation would secure a restaurant’s longevity. Just to test him, I asked a Cincinnati native about Trillin’s raves concerning two “chili parlors,” the Skyline and the Empress, as well as the bit about French restaurants. Yes, she said, all are still there, and then topped it off by naming the three five-star French restaurants. I was reassured. Next time I drive, I may have to reconsider what route to take to Virginia.

Still, I wonder how well this book will be received, when I present it for discussion to a group of women housed in one of our correctional centers. Their food choices are limited. It will be an interesting session.

Of course, reading Trillin on far-flung eateries, prompts me to consider the good and the better closer to home. I eat out fairly regularly and make it a point to try recommended restaurants in towns where I am doing a library book discussion. Of course, some libraries like to provide a meal—Ada, Healdton—so I am more than willing to forego my investigations in those towns. (Healdton deserves special mention, since the Friends of the Library do very good potluck meals.)

I will also forego promoting any Shawnee restaurants, especially those listed in the current News-Star contest; if all of the nominees are “the best,” how could any one of them be “better”?

Nor will I attempt to say anything about Oklahoma City’s restaurants, since I haven’t eaten in that many.

But, in the spirit of Trillin, I have traveled enough in South Central Oklahoma to share some taste biases, again leaving out Shawnee and OKC: Roma’s in Seminole and Luigi’s in Atoka for Italian; Two Frogs in Ardmore and Blue River in Tishomingo for ribs; Smokin’ Joe’s south of Davis, Bob’s Pig Shop in Paul’s Valley, and Trail’s End in Wynnewood for pork barbecue or beef brisket. (Bob’s does the pinto beans nicely too.).

Sure I’ve missed many, but these all hit the spot.

How did I find these restaurants? First I start with the free guide from the Oklahoma Tourism & Recreation Department (travelok.com), “Destination Dining Guide.” While the pictures and write-ups are great, sadly, the guide needs updating. Several of my top picks are not even listed (Roma’s, Luigi’s, Blue River).

Too, are Fire Lake Fry Bread and the Hamburger King the only independent restaurants in Shawnee worthy of mention?? And why is Benton Street Marketplace still listed? Someone needs to talk to the editors of that guide.

Recognizing the guide’s limits, I next go to zomato.com (formerly urbanspoon), which will list all the restaurants in a given town, including chains, and include ratings and reviews. When I get to town, I’m not afraid to ask locals.

All this search-and-eat stimulated by Calvin Trillin’s “Tummy Trilogy.”

Interestingly, since I started reading Trillin, I’ve lost 15 pounds.

Bill Hagen is a retired OBU professor. He lives in Shawnee with his cat. Contact him at billha47@hotmail.com.