The Casual Racism of White Foodie Trendsetting
A response to Calvin Trillin's poem in The New Yorker
Words by Brendan Tang
On April 4th, veteran New Yorker contributor Calvin Trillin published a little limerickey poem about Chinese food called “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” The poem’s disarmingly juvenile rhyme scheme thinly veils the speaker’s racist anxiety about the complexity of Chinese culinary culture. Jezebel already published the best response I can think of: in an effort to match the intellectual rigor of Trillin’s poem, the website published “A Sixth Grader Writes a Book Report About the New Calvin Trillin Poem in The New Yorker.” Yet, according to this New York Times article , a surprising amount of people still don’t seem to understand exactly what’s wrong with the poem. The main defense for Trillin is that he has a track record of eating and writing about a lot of Chinese food—somehow this disqualifies him from writing a racist poem. The fact that this kind of facile thinking has any credence suggests that people either don’t understand the poem or aren’t reading it very closely. Maybe it's because its juvenile rhyme scheme screams “Don’t take me seriously!” Even though the Jezebel article is funny, a serious close reading teases out exactly how the speaker’s dilemma distinctly centers the white foodie’s ego, while erasing the exploitative appropriation of Chinese cuisine as cultural capital.
The poem opens with the speaker’s anxiety:
Have they run out of provinces yet?
If they haven’t, we’ve reason to fret.
The “reason to fret,” we gather, is the speaker’s insecurity over his reputation as a savvy eater: “Then respect was a fraction of meagre / For those eaters who’d not eaten Uighur.” The fast paced cascade of culinary trends detailed in the speaker’s cloying rhymes threatens to render him, like Cantonese cuisine, “strictly passé.” In the curmudgeonly lines, “Szechuanese was the song that we sung, / Though the ma po could burn through your tongue,” the speaker attempts to reckon with his insecurity by framing the cascade of trends as arbitrary to begin with: nothing but “the song that we sung.” It’s not that he can’t handle the heat, he assures us, it’s just that it’s objectively too hot.
In the second stanza the speaker overtly states his insecurity:
Now, as each brandnew province appears,
It brings tension, increasing our fears:
Could a place we extolled as a find
Be revealed as one province behind?
The emergence of each new region’s cuisine into the trendy spotlight signals a new threat for the speaker—a new risk of being perceived as behind the times. He ruefully reflects, “So we sometimes do miss, I confess, / Simple days of chow mein but no stress.” But the speaker’s white supremacy miraculously displaces the source of this stress. It isn’t the availability of a greater diversity of Chinese regional cuisines in America which converts eating out into social currency but the young, mostly white hipster foodies who “discover” these cuisines in an endless Bourdainian quest for increasingly “authentic,” “undiscove-red” eating experiences. This is the exploitative process by which white hipsters gain social currency for eating the same foods that Asian American kids get bullied for packing in their school lunch boxes. It is precisely the process that made it “cool” to eat the ma po tofu that Trillin’s speaker, embarrassingly, couldn’t handle. Yet in a stunning feat of illogic, the poem completely erases this process of exploitation. The speaker misses the “simple days,”
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 phrasing “Have they run out of provinces yet?” is a vague, quasi-anonymous colloquialism, like, “Have they come out with the new Star Wars yet?” In this formulation, “they” anonymizes the agents of production. Has “the market” produced new goods for my consumption yet? The speaker’s use of this consumerist colloquial “they” obscures the specificity of his anxiety, leaving room for a reading in which “they” does not refer to exploitative Bourdainian trendsetters, but to Chinese people. In that case, “Is there one tucked away near Tibet?” plays on the trite anti-Asian stereotype of the “oriental trickster”—perhaps, the speaker suggests, we have been keeping these regional cuisines “up our sleeves” especially for the purpose of threatening the white eater’s ego. The reductive thinking which allows the speaker to refer to Chinese and Chinese diasporic people as a unified “they” with the power to conceal and reveal regional cuisines to the zeitgeist at will is characteristic of the racist white liberal imaginary. Ignoring the Chinese restaurant worker’s struggle for survival in a deeply competitive market defined by largely white trendsetters, the question, “Have they run out of provinces yet?” sets up the vast cultural wealth of Chinese cuisines as a deliberately placed inconvenience to the white subject.
The childish illogic which finds it plausible that Chinese people have made a unified, intentional effort to pace the emergence of their regional cuisines finds its mirror in the poem’s limerickesque rhyme scheme. Of course, neither the illogic nor the rhyme scheme are deployed without irony. Like the comically round noses on David Sipress’ cartoon figures, the rhyme scheme of Trillin’s poem gives it a tone of self conscious whimsy. Part of the “fun” rests in the irony of conveying a contemporary cultural observation (that Fukienese food is trendy) in an incongruous form (a silly rhyme) to an incongruous audience (the wealthy liberal intellectuals that New Yorker subscribers either are or imagine themselves to be). This scheme of ironic incongruence is what makes us refer to New Yorker’s “comic casuals” as “witty.” Yet by no stretch of the imagination can we extend this ironic tone to reckon with the speaker’s racist subjectivity. The frivolous rhyme scheme is not sufficient textual evidence to suggest that the speaker is an ironic construction of the racist white eater’s subjectivity. Instead, it works to further obscure the poem’s implicit racism. A childlike rhyme scheme demands a childlike attention span—to do a close reading is to take the poem “too seriously.” Another way of saying the same thing: in the liberal white imaginary, the narratives which uncritically erase the appropriation of Chinese cuisine as cultural capital are not to be taken seriously.
Brendan Tang is a lit crit student and a line cook. You can find him on Twitter here.