FOODIE FRIDAY: Gastronomy and Irony

After some Asian American writers protested the publication of his latest New Yorker poem, “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?,” humorist Calvin Trillin had to defend his doggerel as just satire of the “food-obsessed bourgeoisie,” not racist verse.

Trillin’s offending poem starts out with a complaint:

“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.)”

The Smithsonian Asian Pacific Center rounded up the indignant responses to Trillin’s poem and expressed their sentiments with the title “Have they run out of ways to insult Asians yet?” The critics charge that the 80-year old Trillin represented another White Writer name-checking foreign Asian places to continue the Western world’s cultural dominance.

Even without knowing Trillin or his previous writings, a fair  reader of the poem may find some clues about its intentions very quickly with it’s quirky rhythm and labored rhymes (traditional mode for doggerel verse). For example, rhyming “Mao” and “chow” should alert an observant reader to the writer’s ironic approach that undermines the whine of the poem’s food-obsessed speaker.

Then Hunan, the birth province of Mao,
Came along with its own style of chow.

The obvious comical devices within the poem itself suggest a separate persona for the speaker of the poem, apart from the writer of the verse.

A fair criticism of Trillin’s poem and the New Yorker’s publication of it could be made: that it is tone-deaf to current sensitivities to cultural appropriation. A younger and more diverse generation of writers and cultural commentators have been justifiably questioning some long-standing modes of depicting the “Orient” and similar colonial misrepresentations.

However, the critics undermine their calls against injustice when they go beyond questioning the quality of the verse or the editorial judgement of the New Yorker and wade into charges of Trillin’s underlying racism. Doing so without the context of Trillin’s other writing and by conflating other forms of cultural insults to his satirical verse only create misdirected grievances about racism and other forms of injustice.

It is too glib and easy to disparage a writer as merely an old white man with a “nostalgia for a white planet that this poem perpetuates” without checking his substantial reporting on civil rights in the 1960s and food writing that reflect his sincere affection for egalitarian dishes.

And missing Calvin Trillin’s dry sense of humor is an injustice in itself.

[Strombo / YouTube] Calvin Trillin On Strombo: Full Interview

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Photo credit: Menu from a Chinese Restaurant, Courtesy


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