Brow Beat

Calvin Trillin’s New Yorker Poem Wasn’t Just Offensive. It Was Bad Satire.

Calvin Trillin.

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Last week, the New Yorker published a poem by Calvin Trillin, a longtime food writer for the magazine as well as a veteran scribbler of light verse. The poem, written in rhymed couplets of anapestic trimeter, was called “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” It adopted the voice of a bewildered foodie trying to keep up with the latest trends in fine Chinese dining:

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.

The poem ends:

Now, as each brand-new province appears,
It brings tension, increasing our fears:
Could a place we extolled as a find
Be revealed as one province behind?
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 verse angered many readers, who took issue with its vision of interchangeable Chinese cuisines pouring in from endless Chinese provinces. Some interpreted the final lines as a nostalgic wish for the days when Americanized noodles represented white people’s closest contact with the Asian “other.” Words like stress, threat, fears, and fret—and the martial portent of food that “could burn through your tongue”—seemed to stoke xenophobic anxieties. At the New Republic, Timothy Yu located a long artistic tradition in which “the disgusting food of the Chinese serves as the ultimate symbol of their foreignness and their refusal to assimilate.” Parody verses sprang up like mushrooms of exasperation.

Almost as quickly, though, the poem’s partisans mounted a “satire” defense. Readers had misunderstood Trillin’s target, some said, mistaking pointed critique for complicity. In a letter to the Boston Globe, the author explained: “The poem was simply a way of making fun of food-obsessed bourgeoisie who are fearful of missing out on the latest thing. 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.”  

That this answer rang false to many seemed to place the entire genre of satire on trial.

What is the value of art that reproduces bigotry and sows hurt, even if its intentions are not malicious? Is it too naïve to assume that all readers will immediately recognize the ideas being presented for mockery as self-evidently bad? It is too insular to presume a consensus? What if the reader has no confidence in, or pre-knowledge of, the attitudes of the writer? How can the writer signal his disdain for the voice he is channeling?

Somewhere in the mist purling off these questions lies a dividing line between good and bad satire, with good satire skewering the persona being adopted and bad satire just giving it a platform. Perhaps good satire contains enough hyperbole to make the ostensible argument appear ridiculous. When Patricia Lockwood mimics the chauvinist tones of certain bros, we don’t accuse her of sexism or worry that she has increased the net quantity of hate in the world.

Effective parodies have a double consciousness—the enlightened perspective of the poem both envelops and refutes the blinkered viewpoint of the speaker. Trillin’s verse doesn’t give us enough reason to think its parodic heart is any more honorable than its bigoted tongue. Sure, if he were a Chinese writer, we’d have extradiagetic reasons to trust him, but the poem itself shows little indication of objecting to what’s really objectionable about its insensitive narrator.

Many critics have already catalogued the aesthetic demerits of “Provinces.” “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,” eye-rolled Rich Smith at the Stranger. Celeste Ng also deplored the poem’s meter on Twitter. Trillin is writing doggerel, which means he’s working within a genre that makes an art of gracelessness. The technical flaws in “Provinces” are putatively meant to augment its humor and to inform its goofy, dumb sensibility. But the doggerel reinforces a jokey reading that absolves the narrator of his real crime, unexamined bigotry, in order to send up a kind of clumsy befuddlement at Chinese culture and geography. “So we thought we were finished, and then / A new province arrived: Fukien,” relates the speaker, both enchanted by and a little frantic at the prospect of even more exotic delicacies. The stumbling meter and silly rhymes paint this guy as a rube, charming in his innocent pretensions and eagerness to sample foreign cuisines, sympathetic in the way his hobby has gotten away from him. We are asked to imagine that, just as the poem’s aesthetics are harmlessly, pleasantly bad, so too are its ideas mockable but inoffensive.

Sure, you could make the case that Trillin is attempting a sharper satire, that he is aware of the poison belied by his speaker’s artlessness. Perhaps he even set out to puncture the appropriations and thoughtlessness of a vain foodie culture, with special attention to the way a strand of American imperialism reduces Chinese people either to consumable products or to menacing, faceless hordes. The speaker’s obsession with provinces makes him, literally, provincial (or at least provincial-minded). And as the Stranger’s Smith brilliantly notes, the word fret in the second line derives from an Old English verb for devour or consume. So while Trillin’s narrator worries about the proliferating mouths of Asian cuisine, his poem’s larger consciousness—like Trillin himself, a connoisseur of China Town—could be delighting in the cultural richness left to discover.

But let’s be honest: The poem doesn’t read like an indictment of casual racism. It reads like a good-natured poke at the snooty aspirations of wannabe hipsters. Yes, it is derisive, but of the wrong things. In its gusto to swat at “we” white people, it hardly seems aware that its attitude toward Chinese people (“they”) is problematic. As such, “Provinces” doesn’t expose the limits of satire so much as it offers a case study in missing the culturally aware forest for one or two mustachioed, dumpling-slurping Brooklyn trees.