Welcome to Danny Caine’s ‘Flavortown’

The poet and Ohio expat navigates new fatherhood and the donkey sauced world of Guy Fieri

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Danny Caine

In the opening to Flavortown, a new collection of poetry from the Ohio-born Danny Caine, Guy Fieri discusses the genesis of the imagined metropolis, saying, “On camera, I once said, ‘This pizza looks like a manhole cover in Flavortown.’” Fieri then goes on to detail the ways the place has since taken on a life of its own, with fans approaching him and pledging to be city council members, or the town mechanic. “It doesn’t stop,” he continues. “What would be the airline of Flavortown? Sausage Airlines?”

Throughout Flavortown, released via the independent, Columbus-based imprint Harpoon Books, Caine spends ample time within the donkey sauce-scented burgh. He imagines its citizenship test (“How much bacon is appropriate to put on a burger? Name three foods that require a stick when deep fried?”), checks in with the town doctor (an office visit during which the poem's narrator receives a fist bump for their ample beer consumption) and, in “Flavortown Gossip,” listens to the whispers of imagined residents discussing Fieri. “I heard he didn’t leave his house for days after the New York Times review went online,” Caine writes. “He’s a people pleaser. All he wants is to be liked. He rolls with the jokes, leans in to the persona, but all he wants is acceptance. And ribs.”

The book — the third in a breakfast-to-dinner trilogy preceded by Continental Breakfast and El Dorado Freddy’s — started with a series of fun, barbecue-smeared poems set in this empty calorie world, gradually developing a greater depth as Caine explored everything from the homogenizing power of American capitalism to his experiences as a new father, often writing late at night as his newborn slept. 

“There are a lot of ways to write about Guy, but ultimately this book is not a meme,” said Caine, who will take part in a virtual release party for Flavortown via Two Dollar Radio at 8 p.m. today (Tuesday, May 4). “It’s funny, and I think it engages with the humor of Guy. ... But I’m hoping to do more than make memes about Guy Fieri.”

In one extended passage, for example, Caine explores the dichotomy between Fieri and the late Anthony Bourdain, who died in June 2018, shortly after Caine’s son was born. 

More:Anthony Bourdain on lessons learned raising a daughter and the rise of Trump

“I was already so emotionally raw from the birth of my first child and the challenges and the loss of sleep, and then to lose someone I admired so much in Anthony Bourdain...” said Caine, who explores this loss in a long passage contrasting the competing approaches and personas of Bourdain and Fieri. “Grief can be so surprising. Of course, I never met Anthony Bourdain, and he has no idea who I am. Nonetheless, his death really hit me hard, and I’d find myself late at night, with a restless newborn, watching reruns of Anthony Bourdain on low volume, rocking this kid to sleep.

"And that was a formative and raw experience, because I was kind of realigning my concept of what it means to be a person and a man and a father. To have that grief, and so much of Anthony Bourdain’s great writing coming into me at my most raw, and it led me to thinking a lot about this stuff. So, yeah, there are jokey things about Guy Fieri, but then there are open and vulnerable things about becoming a dad.”

These tender moments are captured by verses in which Caine struggles to construct a dresser for the newborn’s room, and even more acutely in poems such as “The Blue Moon Suite,” where the poet writes that at one time he didn’t want children, although that alternate reality had long since evaporated. On occasion, these contrasting worlds even blur, such as within “A Child’s First Words in Flavortown,” which reads:

As soon as he got teeth 

I knew it was time 

to give him 

a Nashville Hot Chicken sandwich. 

He took one bite, smiled, 

and looked directly at me. 

He said, I swear to god, 

Whoa, that’s off the hook— 

and reader, it was.

Still other poems are set in what could be described as real-world equivalents to Flavortown, such as “In the Bad Walmart’s Parking Lot” and “It’s a Holiday Inn Express Christmas,” continuing a fascination and sometimes contempt Caine has long held for the ways culture can become homogenized within American capitalism — an idea that has only strengthened in the years he’s owned and operated the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas. (So while Flavortown is available on Amazon, maybe don’t. Support your independent bookseller instead.)

“That’s what unites my nonfiction, my poetry and my activism, which are all different ways of approaching the same problem, the same question, which is asking how capitalism and corporations shape our lives,” said Caine, who took early poetic inspiration from the likes of Frank O’Hara, drawn to the the apparent simplicity in his language, as well as Erika Meitner, whom Caine credited with allowing him to see that beautiful poems could be set in Kroger parking lots. “I see it every day as a small business owner and a bookseller. I can’t not see how this stuff shapes everything about what we eat, where we go, what our landscape looks like. And, regardless of these massive corporate and economic forces … people persist in falling in love and forming families and identities, and that’s really interesting and inspiring to me.”

Since Caine started this particular collection more than three years ago, he acknowledges that some of the cultural conversation around Fieri has shifted, particularly in light of the coronavirus pandemic, with the chef and TV personality having partnered with the National Restaurant Association to raise almost $25 million for those left out-of-work within the decimated industry.

“It’s interesting, I think we’ve moved beyond the idea of Guy as a dumb goofball, and I think people are seeing a lot of the great work he does. … This bleached-hair buffoon image of Guy Fieri was outdated before I even started the book,” Caine said. “That being said, I don’t think I totally land in that [convert] camp, either, especially in visiting his restaurant in Kansas City, which felt like a really cynical place. I just think he’s super complicated, and he’s complicated in a way I’m never going to know just writing about him, and in a way that makes him more interesting than what people might already have come to realize.”

A map of Flavortown