I woke up Thursday morning to the latest Internet controversy: a poem published in the New Yorker about Chinese regional cuisines, penned by Calvin Trillin, the man who drew up the blueprints for modern food writing. Outrage quickly ensued over the author’s lark of a piece, titled “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?”
Have they run out of provinces yet?
If they haven’t, we’ve reason to fret.
Long ago, there was just Cantonese.
(Long ago, we were easy to please.)
But then food from Szechuan came our way,
Making Cantonese strictly passé.
Szechuanese was the song that we sung,
Though the ma po could burn through your tongue.
In the Stranger, a Seattle weekly paper, author Rich Smith judged that Trillin had used his rhetorical skills and his New Yorker megaphone to write a poem with a “casually racist conclusion.” Smith deciphered, via a mere 28 lines, that Trillin was “longing for the days when ‘we’ — one has to presume white Americans — didn’t have to deal with all of this complexity, all of these people with their foods and ideas and thoughts and personhoods.”
The blog Jezebel jumped into the fray with a satirical “book report,” written by an unnamed “sixth-grader” whose dissection of the poem should presumably horrify us, as if Trillin’s casual racism were being casually passed from one generation to another. In Salon, author Paula Young Lee rounded up the attacks on Trillin’s “clumsy ode to Chinese cuisine,” including a white-hot diatribe/parody titled, “Have They Run out of White Tears Yet?”
Lee sums up her own problems with the poem this way: “It’s the unselfconscious centering of the white male gaze (or taste-buds) on the ‘exotic’ cuisine that is Chinese, the implication that China becomes relevant by virtue of being consumed by urbanites who read The New Yorker, that the world can be literally understood through a consumerist model that turns food into social media trends. . . .”
Twitter, that platform of love and tolerance, feasted on Trillin like a cheap Friday night buffet. A few random samples:
As a food writer who has often savored Trillin’s words, I am certainly biased, or at least not neutral, in my respect for the author’s work. Many of his passions are mine, including but not limited to barbecue (even if he prefers Kansas City-style ’cue over Texas-style, which just proves no one is perfect). We have both written extensively about master Chinese chef Peter Chang, too. Trillin’s piece was about the endless pursuit of the vagabond Chang, mine about why the chef was changing addresses so often in the first place.
When I read Trillin’s poem, I mentally lumped it into the category of doggerel, which he has been writing for years for the Nation. He has even published a volume or two dedicated to the stuff. It’s almost always played for comedy and satire, not as literature. To me, the form and tone of Trillin’s “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” — its childlike rhyming couplets, its absurd fears — were obvious winks to the reader that this was satire. Trillin had conjured up a hipster-foodie narrator who collects dining experiences like some people collect vinyl records.
Trillin acknowledged as much to the Guardian this week when he emailed to say that the poem “was simply a way of making fun of food-obsessed bourgeoisie.”
His attackers, it seems, have drawn two fundamentally wrong conclusions about Trillin in general and this poem in particular. First, they’ve committed a basic reviewer’s sin: They’ve confused the narrator of the poem for the author of the poem. Many seem to have automatically assumed the storyteller is an author surrogate.
But I think the larger crime is that many, not all, of Trillin’s attackers have made a troubling generalization about the author. It goes something like this: Calvin Trillin is old. (He’s 80.) He’s white. (He was born in Kansas City, Mo., hence his love for the city’s barbecue.) Because Trillin is old and white, he is clueless about sensitive matters such as stereotyping, cultural reductionism, casual racism and cultural appropriation. At least one of his attackers, the Stranger writer (in a kind of postmortem mea culpa), admits that he “and many poets my age seem to be unaware of” Trillin’s reputation.
Let me give you just one example of Trillin’s complex views of the world. It comes from an essay published in his 2003 collection, “Feeding a Yen.” In the piece, Trillin recalls that in the late 1960s he visited the Republic of Nauru, a minuscule island in the Central Pacific, where mining companies were stripping the place clean of phosphate deposits. Feeding crews on the remote island with little arable land wasn’t easy back then. Against the odds, Chinese workers had started a garden and built a restaurant, called Star Twinkles, on Nauru.
Writes Trillin: “A former official of the British colonial service who worked for the Nauruan government pointed to the existence of the garden and the restaurant as confirmation of his theory, developed over years of service in the Pacific, that the Overseas Chinese are a superior race. Being resistant to racial theories, even those that assign only positive attributes to the race being discussed, I pointed out that, just for starters, some scientists might question whether Overseas Chinese can be said to be a race, distinct from, say, Chinese who remained in China.”
Trillin then wastes no time and, in the very next sentence, pokes fun at his own wry, high-handed tone.
“But every time I was about to dismiss the theory as unscientific and perhaps even repugnant, I’d have a meal at Star Twinkles.”
This is classic Trillin: Savvy enough to spot casual racism and racial profiling when he encounters it, but clever enough to joke that his affection for the food made him doubt his own beliefs. Trillin’s attackers could learn from his ability to hold more than one thought at a time.