The Undeniable Presence of the Bull

Calvin Trillin is one of my favourite writers. Trillin is very much an American writer, essentially unknown in Australia and even in America you have to be the type to want to read his style of journalism and humour. But we of the type love his writing, and the man himself, regarding him as a national treasure. Trillin writes beautifully, with an E. B. White-ish gentleness and elegance, but can also be incredibly funny, particularly about food and eating. To quote one of a thousand passages, here is Trillin in the foreword to his Tummy Trilogy:

From the point of view of a traveling man with a strong interest in immigrants being able to get a toehold in this country by starting family restaurants, the pre-1965 immigration policy was a matter of simple madness: we were basically shutting out the Chinese while letting in as many Englishmen as wanted to come, even if they were dragging their overcooked vegetables behind them. … I have previously acknowledged, when helicopters were snatching people from the grounds of the American embassy compound during the panic of the final Vietcong push into Saigon, I was sitting in front of the television set shouting, “Get the chefs! Get the chefs!”

(A few years ago, Trillin got walloped for a similarly self-centred, ethnic-focussed ditty, which was antipodally misread by a multitude of humourless assholes. The episode was very minor in the scheme of the current offendedness mania but it was about as idiotic as such episodes get and Trillin was defended by no one of stature.)

That is all by way of introduction and this post is not about Trillin. It is about just one great Trillin line and why it has come to mind. In one section of Travels with Alice, Trillin is in Barbados with his wife, Alice, lamenting the difficulty of getting good food in the Caribbean, dreaming of the Italian West Indies and its fabled island, Santa Prosciutto.

Somehow I always arrive for my first visit on a Caribbean island confident that I am going to find something decent to eat. When we arrived in Barbados, Alice reminded me that even my most frenzied efforts in the Caribbean tend not to be fruitful. …

“Don’t forget the bullfoot soup,” she said, referring to a native dish on St. Thomas whose name, I’m afraid, described it with unfortunate precision. 

“Well, I’m sure at least that it was authentic,” I said. “It tasted pretty much the way you’d imagine something called bullfoot soup tasting. And there was, of course, the undeniable presence of the foot …”

Which brings us to the International Congress on Mathematical Education.

ICME-15 is on in Sydney right now, with roughly a million maths ed people having flocked in, all now congratulating each other on their brilliant insights. Unsurprisingly, I’ve paid the Congress little mind, but I’ve caught glimpses out of the corner of my eye and one cannot help but ponder. Surely, with a million people sharing their hard work and deep thoughts, there must be something there, right? But then I remember.

I ponder what four decades of mathematical ignorance might produce, and what we have is much as one would imagine. One needn’t bother listening to what these people say. Look instead, always, at what they have produced. It is bull. It is undeniable.

7 Replies to “The Undeniable Presence of the Bull”

    1. The Tummy Trilogy is better than Travels With Alice. But, although I first fell in love with Trillin through his hilarious food writing, it’s his straight journalism and reminiscing pieces that I really grew to like: Killings, American Stories, Remembering Denny and many others.

  1. Jason Sharples gives excellent talks on the mathematics of bushfires. Great slides as I recall.

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