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Calvin Trillin and the New Yorker slammed for ‘casually racist’ poem about Chinese food

Poems that appear in the New Yorker do not routinely elicit controversy, or even necessarily comment. Confusion? Yes. Slight amusement? Yes. Twitter rants about racism, classism and cultural appropriation? No.

But those are among the responses that have met “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?,” a poem by literary graybeard Calvin Trillin published in that magazine of magazines this week. The 28-line poem, a meditation on the wide variety of Chinese food available in the 21st century, appeared to some to slight a nation of more than 1 billion people by reducing them to menu options.

“Have they run out of provinces yet?” Trillin’s poem began. “If they haven’t, we’ve reason to fret./ Long ago, there was just Cantonese./ (Long ago, we were easy to please.)”

Trillin, an 80-year-old veteran journalist, novelist, humorist and food writer who has written more than 300 pieces for the New Yorker since 1963, then contemplated the proliferation of cuisines since the “simple days of chow mein”: Szechuanese, Shanghainese, Hunanese, et al. Though the history of China and its diverse cultures is complex, fraught, and stretches back millennia, Trillin’s main concern was that he had missed a flavor or two.

“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?”

The Internet outrage machine was soon aimed at poesy decried by one critic as “light white verse.”

“The poem announces its regressive ideologies in several ways, starting with the title’s employment of the othering ‘we/they’ binary, where ‘they’ are ‘foreigners’ who have a seemingly endless number of those whatsits — Provinces? — and ‘we’ white Americans are the stately realists who have a comprehensible number of states and cuisines,” Rich Smith wrote at the Stranger, also calling the poem “casually racist.”

Jezebel was particularly acid, skewering the poem in a satirical piece bylined “a sixth grader.” It zeroed in on Trillin’s observation that “we never were faced with the threat/ Of more provinces we hadn’t met.”

“This line rhymes with the title of the poem, which is ‘Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?,’ which is a question that is connected to the world because everyone understands that China is too big and they are taking American jobs and there are too many kinds of them,” the “sixth grader” wrote. “In conclusion, Calvin Trillin hopes the answer is yes, China has run out of provinces.”

Reached by the Guardian, Trillin defended his work.

“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, pointing out another poem he published in 2003 called  “What Happened to Brie and Chablis?” “It was not a put-down of the French,” he wrote.

The New Yorker also defended its man. Natalie Raabe, the magazine’s director of communications, said “the intention of the poem” was “to satirize ‘foodie’ culture.”

Trillin, whose lengthy bibliography includes at least two books about food, has made provocative comments about cuisines of other nations before. In 1983, during a trip to “Little Vietnam” in Arlington, Va., he told The Washington Post about his reaction to the fall of Saigon.

“I kept saying, ‘Get the chefs! Take the chefs!'” Trillin said. Satisfied with his meal, he declared: “I’m glad the Reds didn’t get these guys.”

Trillin also described his technique for finding restaurants in unfamiliar areas. “I always figure that you stick with regional specialties and the cooking of ethnic groups large enough to have at least two aldermen on the city council,” he said.

Rather than — or, maybe, in addition to — blaming Trillin, some blamed the New Yorker.

“It’s about not having an editor on staff who says, ‘This is a terrible headline/poem/etc,'” author Mindy Hung tweeted. “It’s about editing and who is in the editorial staff. It’s about passively accepting juvenile pieces bc you always pub that writer.”

When a literary great turns in less-than-great work, some said, the whistle has got to be blown.

“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?’”