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Why 80-Year-Old White Humorists Shouldn't Write About Ethnic Nuances in Chinese Food

The internet’s main beef, if you will, with the poem is that it appears to play on stereotypes of China as a teeming country of faceless billions, wholly incomprehensible to Westerners.

by Alex Swerdloff
Apr 7 2016, 10:00pm

Photo via Flickr user KellyB.

Welcome to what appears to be your first internet thrashing, Mr. Calvin Trillin. What more can we say to the venerable 80-year-old New Yorker writer, winner of the 2013 Thurber Prize for American Humor, and member of the New York Writers Hall of Fame, who has suffered quite an online beating over the past several days?

Trillin's poem, "Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?" was published in the April 4 edition of The New Yorker. The doggerel verse pokes fun at the seemingly endless multitudes of Chinese cuisines:

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.

Trillin is known for his humorous poems about foodie culture—an earlier poem called "What Happened to Brie and Chablis?" poked fun at the increasing sophistication of bougie eaters. That poem, however, was published in 2003—before Internet commentators became a corrective force or a firing squad, depending on your point of view. But Trillin's latest poem is the subject of an all-out flame war.

The internet's main beef, if you will, with the poem is that it appears to play on stereotypes of China as a teeming country of faceless billions, wholly incomprehensible to Westerners. Plus, those who are commenting seem to think it's just lousy poetry.

Chef and Huang's World​ host Eddie Huang, to cite one example, tweeted: "Food should be a gateway to understand identity but the players and audience are basic so u get this shit. Soon the world is going to run out of provinces for basic whites to gaze on and consume and toss to the side."

Karissa Chen, the fiction and poetry editor for Hyphen Magazine, took a more literary approach. She tweeted: "dear @NewYorker: this Calvin Trillin poem isn't only offensive it's also just... bad."

So is Trillin being a "basic white"?

In an email to The Guardian, Trillin defended his poem by saying it "was simply a way of making fun of food-obsessed bourgeoisie." He went on to say, "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."

When MUNCHIES reached out to The New Yorker, they passed along the following statement from Trillin (which has been edited down so as to not repeat the previous paragraph): "In 2003, I published another poem in The New Yorker about food fashion. It was called 'What Happened to Brie and Chablis?' It was not a put-down of the French." A representative of The New Yorker stated, "The intention of the poem was to satirize 'foodie' culture. Calvin Trillin has been writing about food for decades, in a variety of forms: profiles, travel writing, light verse."

Writer Rich Smith is having none of that. He says the poem is all about "nostalgia for a white planet" and displays a white man's "longing for a time of chow mein [and] those days when we white people comfortably held power, when they made food for us, when the only fear was the fear of another cuisine to conquer, the days before we had to ask ourselves stuff like—does this poem rest on an unexamined racist sentiment?"

Well, then. Not so easy to just knock out a silly little poem these days, is it Mr. Trillin?

We'll let Brooklyn-based poet Jenny Zhang have the last word: