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Calvin Trillin’s Chinese food is not appetizing to some

Calvin Trillin, pictured in  2006.
Calvin Trillin, pictured in 2006. Richard Drew/AP/file

A poem by Calvin Trillin in the new issue of The New Yorker has some complaining his verse about the many varieties of Chinese food is offensive. Trillin, 80, a journalist and humorist who’s written several books about food, begins the poem — titled “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” — this way:

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 goes on:

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.

And concludes:

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?

Not everyone thinks Trillin’s rhyme is funny. “Like what is it, a nursery rhyme about chinese food as experienced by a white person? dude, china is not yours for the columbusing,” writer Karissa Chen, the fiction & poetry editor of Hyphen magazine, tweeted. (She then mocked Trillin’s poem with a few lines of her own. “Stinky tofu is actually kinda nice / goes pretty good with my yangzhou fried rice.”) Cambridge-based author Celeste Ng, whose novel “Everything I Never Told You” was a New York Times bestseller, is also annoyed. She said she’s not sure if the poem is offensive or just bad. “Some people have suggested we’re supposed to read it as satire and not take it at face value,” Ng said. “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?’” If it’s not satire, she said, it’s deeply upsetting. “It’s like ‘yellow peril,’ like ‘oh no, this faceless indistinguishable people coming to take us over,’ as if there’s something threatening about our culture and the many facets of it.” Ng said she’ll be curious to see if The New Yorker responds to the criticism. (Attempts to contact a rep for the magazine were unsuccessful.) “Maybe we are supposed to read this as satire,” she said. “But the fact that we’re not sure means it’s not fully baked.”


In a statement to the Globe, Trillin responded to the criticism. “The poem was simply a way of making fun of food-obsessed bourgeoisie who are fearful of missing out on the latest thing,” he wrote. “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. 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.”