I could not help but smile when reading Calvin Trillin’s food poem, “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” (2016). Perhaps my joy is because of the rhymed couplets, which reminded me of a childish song, that Trillin uses to inform his readers about numerous Chinese provinces as they connect to Asian cuisine. Or greater than this, upon first reading Trillin’s piece, it reminded me of cherished memories with my grandmother. Every weekend I would indulge in sharing “Szechuan” crispy shredded beef with my grandma at our favorite Asian restaurant, “Hunan” Ritz (Trillin 5, 11). Therefore, with these fond memories in mind, I was shocked to read Katy Waldman’s negative reaction to Trillin’s poem in her piece, “Calvin Trillin’s New Yorker Poem Wasn’t Just Offensive. It Was Bad Satire” (2016). Nevertheless, while Trillin’s piece personally evoked nostalgia, I can understand the backlash Waldman brings up and critiques. However, given the speaker’s inquisitive and informative tone, I believe Trillin looked to “delight in the cultural richness left to discover” rather than intentionally spread bigotry towards Asians (Waldman 3).
Trillin’s poem begins with the question, “Have they run out of provinces yet?” (1). Paired with the second line, “If they haven’t, we’ve reason to fret” creates a good-natured inquiry (Trillin 2). Trillin advocates for additional Asian cultures to gain respect. The speaker asks this question because it is a bigger problem if additional provinces seize to exist instead of looking at them as an emerging threat. Waldman argues that Trillin’s “interchange[ing]” of “Chinese cuisines” is a main reason for angering readers (Waldman 1). However, Trillin does not interchange these cultures, but rather distinguishes the importance of each. His tone informs readers that “Long ago, there was just Cantonese” (Trillin 3). It was not until “Szechuan came our way” that people questioned the different provinces within Chinese cuisine (Trillin 5). Until then, Chinese cuisine was generalized as only one thing. Trillin is informing readers of the progression of provinces that influenced foods they believe they know all about, but actually may not know the history behind. Waldman states that the “Americanized noodles represented white people’s closest contact with the Asian ‘other’” (1). Thus, Trillin is informing “white people” about the distinct cultures that “noodles” emerged from, creating an understanding instead of “other[ing]” (Waldman 1). While Trillin’s attempt to inform readers may come off as stereotyping, considering “burn[ing] through your tongue” is not the only characteristic of “Szechuanese” food; ultimately, Trillin’s poem “reads like a good-natured poke at the snooty aspirations of wannabee hipsters” (Trillin 8,7; Waldman 3). One may not know about the origins of the food they love, or perhaps they complain about the numerous options when they simply want noodles. Trillin attempts to remedy both categories of customers through information and distinction between cultures many (mis)associate with their favorite chow.
Trillin’s “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” is not a perfect poem. Waldman’s commentary reveals the insensitivity many readers felt in Trillin’s work. What one reads as nostalgia can be interpreted as bigotry by another. Nevertheless, whether one reads this poem as “good [or] bad satire,” Trillin reveals a list of different provinces and cultures (Waldman 2). While one reader may take offense by Trillin simply dropping names with little elaboration, he also exposes readers to over five provinces they may never have heard of before. Waldman cites an “eye-rolled Rich Smith at the Stranger;” however, perhaps it is more eye-opening (2). The next time you “slurp dumplings” remember they originate from “Shanghainese” culture (Trillin 10, 9). This is a fact unknown from the generic name of Chinese restaurants, but one revealed by Trillin, making readers potentially think twice about food they casually eat thanks to the information they learned in his poem. B6.
Trillin, Calvin. “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?.” The New Yorker, 4 Apr. 2016.
Waldman, Kate. “Calvin Trillin’s New Yorker Poem Wasn’t Just Offensive. It Was Bad Satire.” Browbeat, Slate, 12 Apr. 2016.