A poem about the proliferation of modern Chinese cuisine has left many Asian-American chefs and writers with a bad taste in their mouths.
“Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” by humorist and food writer Calvin Trillin, which appeared in last week’s New Yorker, ponders the many varieties of Chinese food available today.
“Long ago, there was just Cantonese. (Long ago, we were easy to please.),” says the poem. It continues, “But then food from Szechuan came our way, making Cantonese strictly passé."
Trillin mentions cuisine from Shanghai, Hunan and several other locales in the 28-line poem, which, according to the author, provides satirical commentary on American food culture at large and the undue pressure diners face who yearn to be in-the-know about the latest cuisines.
“Now, as each brand-new province appears,” he wrote. “It brings tension, increasing our fears:/ Could a place we extolled as a find/ Be revealed as one province behind?”
But soon after the poem was published, many in the food and culinary worlds accused the 80-year-old writer of trying to reduce the culture and cuisine of a billion people into menu items with which Westerners are comfortable.
Chef Eddie Huang, whose memoir “Fresh Off the Boat” spawned a recent sitcom, Tweeted: “Food should be a gateway to understand identity but the players and audience are basic so u get this s---"
He also accused Trillin of xenophobia and lamented that the world will run out of provinces for “basic whites” to ponder before tossing aside.
Rich Smith of the Stranger called the poem “casually racist” and said Trillin’s verses perpetuate a “trend in poetry of nostalgia for a white planet” by juxtaposing the foreign other to the American “we.”
Since the poem’s release and ensuing backlash, Trillin defended his stanzas to The Guardian via email.
“Some years ago, a similar poem could have been written about food snobs who looked down on red-sauce Italian cooking because they had discovered the cuisine of Tuscany,” he wrote. In 2003, he published a piece “What Happened to Brie and Chablis?” that pokes fun at the constantly rotating array of “in” foods. But in the pre-social media age, that piece didn’t cause as much of a stir.
The New Yorker has also defended its decision to publish “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?”
The magazine’s director of communications Natalie Raabe told The Guardian that “the intention of the poem” was “to satirize ‘foodie’ culture.”
Many critics were less upset with Trillin himself, instead blaming the New Yorker for its culturally insensitive fail. Writer and poetry editor Karissa Chen admonished the poem for being “offensive” and “bad,” but also took issue with many people, including the New Yorker staff, for defending it.
“Some people have suggested we’re supposed to read it as satire and not take it at face value,” best-selling Cambridge-based author Celeste Ng told the Boston Globe. “They might be right, but then The New Yorker editors should have stepped in and said, ‘Is this piece of art doing what it’s supposed to do?’”