In this issue of the New Yorker Calvin Trillin feels overwhelmed by Chinese food trends in the U.S. and longs for the simpler days of chow mein but no stress.
In this issue of the New Yorker, Calvin Trillin feels overwhelmed by Chinese food trends in the U.S. and longs for the "simpler days of chow mein but no stress." The New Yorker

The food writer/poet/long-time contributor to the New Yorker, Calvin Trillin, has a poem in the April 4th issue of New Yorker called, "Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?"

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The poem is a series of rhyming couplets wherein the speaker seems beguiled and overwhelmed by the apparent onslaught ("too many to name," he writes) of Chinese food options in the U.S. The speaker fears he's not ahead of the game re: when the next Chinese province will start trending on menus, and wonders if there are in fact other Chinese provinces—how could he ever find out—whose culinary practices might be reduced to a U.S. restaurant trend as well. The poem begins:

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.)

And later on the poem continues in the same vein:

Then when Shanghainese got in the loop
We slurped dumplings whose insides were soup.
Then Hunan, the birth province of Mao,
Came along with its own style of chow.

Before we get into the trend in poetry of nostalgia for a white planet that this poem perpetuates,* give me a quick second to talk a little shop here: If there's a rhyme that's ever reached harder than "in the loop / whose insides were soup" does, then I don't know it. Although, Trillin's following rhyme, "birth province of Mao / own style of chow" is a strong contender. And now that I take a second look, I realize that in the opening couplet he does use the archaic word fret in order to satisfy a rhyme request, which breaks a pretty serious rule in poetry. The only time you get to use "fret" in a poem is if you're describing a guitar or if you're 19th century Hugh Jackman.

A brief etymological search reveals that the word "fret" comes from the Old English word fretan, which means—get ready— "to devour, consume." See what he did there? Trillin's turning/punning on a completely buried etymological fact—he means that the abundance and variety of Chinese food in the U.S. is only "threatening" in that—har har—we'd have to eat a bunch—perhaps even too much!—if we're to sample it all.

There are interesting poets who use this rhetorical device—turning on a buried etymological fact—to great effect (Hannah Sanghee Park, Heather McHugh, and Richard Kenney immediately come to mind), but in Trillin's hands the move seems only to exist to license the poem's casually racist conclusion.

The poem ends by 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:

So we sometimes do miss, I confess,
Simple days of chow mein but no stress,
When we never were faced with the threat
Of more provinces we hadn’t met.
Is there one tucked away near Tibet?
Have they run out of provinces yet?

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.

This longing for a time of chow mein—which is, as I'm sure the food writer knows—a westernized dish—is a longing for the days of a white planet. 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?

Trillin's concluding thought in this poem recalls Tony Hoagland's concluding thought in "The Change," which Claudia Rankine famously (relatively speaking) and powerfully and gracefully discussed at the 2011 AWP conference. Like Trillin's speaker, Hoagland's speaker yearns for a time when the divide between white people and black people was even more institutionalized than it is now.

Aside from adding insult to the centuries of injury done to people of color in the U.S., Trillins's and Hoagland's poems commit the poetic sin of resting on stereotypes. Trillin's talk of potentially endless provinces plays on the stereotype of the Chinese horde and stokes xenophobic fears, and his exoticization of food ("as each brand-new province appears"—brand new to who?) plays into Orientalism. All of these are stereotypes, all stereotypes are cliches, and all cliches are boring. In fact—and here's some etymology for you, Trillin—the word "cliche" comes from the act of boring into a stereotype. So cliche is born from the stereotype—in that it's supposedly onomatopoetic of the "sound of a mold striking molten metal" to make a printing plate.

None of this is to say that white writers shouldn't write about race. After all, as I remember Ta Nehisi Coates quoting Baldwin at a recent talk in Seattle—we invented it. But the idea is to try to write about race without perpetuating racism.


*UPDATE*

I have been made aware of another reading of this poem. Samuel Cohen, associate professor of English at the University of Missouri (and my former senior capstone class in English prof) posted on my Facebook wall the following defense of Trillin's poem:

He's being ironic. He's been a food writer and poet of doggerel verse for a million years and I've seen him riding his bike around Chinatown, where he loves to eat. He is not actually complaining about the variety of regional Chinese cuisines and he is not actually nostalgic for the days of chow mein. He is making fun of white people. Criticize him for crappy poetry—he wouldn't even argue—but he's too good (see his prose) and smart and non-racist a writer to have written this straight. That is, he being ironic.

I think that's a bold bit of irony! It requires you to trust the New Yorker wouldn't publish a poem like that (and, to their credit, they have been publishing such good ones lately!) and it rests on Trillin's reputation, which me and many poets my age seem to be unaware of. In an era when Michael Derrick Hudson can assume a name like Yi-Fen Chou and still get published in Best New American Poets 2015, it's particularly hard to swallow that joke.