My Attempt To Write A Poem About Foodie Culture That’s Less Offensive Than Calvin Trillin’s “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?”
In the April 4th issue of The New Yorker, longtime humorist and food writer Trillin wrote a poem called “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” that discusses, and bemoans, the apparently faddish behavior of Manhattanite foodies who keep trying new Chinese cuisines, each with a new-to-us province as its adjective (not just Szechuan and Hunan, but the less common Shaanxi and Uighur)—where the identity of “us” is not clear.
The poem instantly came under fire for being racist (for treating Chinese cuisines, and provinces, and Chinese culture generally, as a disposable treat that can be sampled and tossed without ever being understood; see Timothy Yu’s piece in The New Republic for more). In general, I think these criticisms tend to hyperbolically overstate the offense—Trillin is no rabid racist; just a privileged white guy who was writing a poem to the fellow members of his (likely) multicultural (because Manhattan), but culturally and financially privileged, club of frequent diners-out. Trillin has defended himself in The Guardian, pointing out that when he did similar riffs on French and Italian food fads, no one complained. Well, yes. Europe is different from China that way, more’s the pity. He should’ve known that.
That, to my mind, is the real sin that Trillin committed: Writing While Old, White, and Male in The New Yorker, on a Topic That He Should Have Known Would Garner Exceptional Scrutiny, But Blundering Ahead Regardless in a Way That Looked Exceptionally Old White and Male and Setting Off Some Red Flags in the Process. Franny Choi (whose response I will shortly commend you to below) handles this perfectly, I think: the problem with the piece is literary culture in general, of which The New Yorker is an example, for whom Trillin is a metonym of a white male who got his piece into the New Yorker even though it wasn’t especially good, while people of color are dismissed (like so much exotic food) and remain widely underrepresented in this alleged pinnacle of sophistication.
Not everyone has critiqued Trillin’s poem as wisely. In particular, I want to single out Rich Smith in The Stranger, whose criticism is as jaw-droppingly obtuse as it is bafflingly ignorant. Obtuse because he claims Trillin “longs for a white planet” — that seems a bit strong, doesn’t it? — and is shocked and horrified that foreign cuisines exist. (Dude, this is a food writer you’re attempting to accurately diagnose. Try again). Bafflingly ignorant because he calls the word “fret” an archaism(?), claims that you’re not allowed to use archaic words in a light verse poem (??), says that “soup” and “loop” is a huge stretch for a light verse rhyme (???), and then — most bafflingly of all — deigns to praise Trillin briefly for punning on a hidden etymological meaning in the word “fret” (????)—but, alas, failing to do a truly meaningful double entendre the way Heather McHugh would in a poem for The Georgia Review(?????).
Dear Rich Smith: The joy of light verse is that you can, in fact, use interesting words in interesting ways, and that includes the freedom — nay, the frequent necessity — of using low-frequency words in tortured rhymes. (“What would a ctenophore/Go to Vienna for?”) Light verse trades in jokes, so it requires an immediate reaction, or it has failed. If you approach a light verse poem by scouring through a dictionary for hidden meaning, you have completely missed the entire fucking point, and you need to just stop already with the criticizing a form of poetry you don’t like enough to bother to understand.
Anyway, the main problem I had on my first reading of Trillin’s poem was its failure to do much with the potential of light verse: it was using fairly dull one-syllable rhymes and didn’t seem to have anywhere to go with its one idea. It’s a situation that calls for a poetic fix.
Many writers have responded with poems of their own (As foreshadowed above, I recommend Franny Choi’s “Have They Run Out of White Poets Yet?,” but can only recommend Craig Santos Perez’s “Have They Run Out of Franchises Yet?” as a cautionary tale of what can happen if you try to write light verse with no sense of scansion and nowhere to go with your one-joke idea). But so far, no one has actually tried to write a better version of Trillin’s concept: a true satire of Manhattanite foodie culture and its apparent obsession with ever-new forms of Chinese dishes. What could he have done if he wanted to accommodate a wider audience than The New Yorker’s (ahem) provincials? As a light verse writer myself, I had to try.
So, with a few caveats, here is the poem—same topic, but tarted up with two-syllable rhyme words, wincingly forced rhymes, and an actual narrative arc.
Caveats: 1.) I’m not actually a foodie myself, so the poem wound up being not about food very much; 2.) It’s not as funny as I want it to be, but I didn’t get to choose the topic. 3.) Despite the poem’s assertions, I’ve never been off the continent myself; I assume my foodie persona has. 4.) The word “crimp” in the title is a synonym for the verb “shanghai,” which I’d originally considered using, but decided against at the last moment. I think it was a wise decision, but you may choose to disagree.
WHEN GOURMANDS CRIMP THEMSELVES
(An attempt to poetically mock Manhattan foodie culture slightly better than Calvin Trillin did)
It seems that Manhattanite foodies
Have recently failed in their duties
To find something fun for the palate
More exciting than simple Chef’s Salat.
What once was nutrition
Is now competiton
That’s led to unsportsmanlike nights.
And China right now’s in their sights.
Now, we foodies don’t speak of “Chinese”
Cuisine anymore. (I mean, please.
Any continent that astronomical
Will vary in things gastronomical!)
But as one who has been
From Szechuan to Fukien
I think that this taste for exotica
Is racist and kind of psychotic — a
Technique for allowing as how
One’s tongue is more-traveled-than-thou.
It’s a sociocultural snobbery
That turns mere gustation to robbery.
You can’t enjoy dinner
When someone’s a winner
While somebody else is embarrassed.
(If you do this, you’re kind of a terr’ist.)
So stop looking downward upon
Folks who’ve tried Cantonese but not Xi’an.
If you’re just checking names off a list,
There’s a helluva lot you’ll have missed.
If you’re not even glad
That Szechuan can be had,
It’s a sign that you’ve lost your damn way —
And you deserve Denny’s today.
(c) Slightly More Pleasant (David Ellis Dickerson), 13 April 2016