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For Some Asian-Americans, Calvin Trillin's Chinese Food Poem Is Unappetizing


Writer Calvin Trillin thought he was giving a lighthearted look at food fads in a poem for The New Yorker magazine. Here he is reading an excerpt taken from The New Yorker's website.


CALVIN TRILLIN: (Reading) Szechuanese was the song that we sung, though the ma po could burn through your tongue. Then when Shanghainese got in the loop, we slurped dumplings whose insides were soup.

CORNISH: But what was meant as a satire foodies has given Trillin a taste of cultural controversy. Here's NPR's Andrew Limbong with the story.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: The poem's called "Have They Run Out Of Provinces Yet?" It's about how the geographic universe of Chinese food in America has grown from the familiar Cantonese and Szechuan to other less familiar provinces. Here's more of Trillin reading the poem.


TRILLIN: (Reading) 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.

TIMOTHY YU: The major feeling I was getting from people was exasperation, like, can you believe this is happening again?

LIMBONG: This is Timothy Yu. He's an associate professor of English and Asian-American studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He says he understands what Trillin was going for, hitting at foodies obsessed with trying to find the new thing.

YU: What's bothersome to a lot of Asian-American readers about it is not the satire; it's the fact that Chinese things are kind of being used as the punch line or the prop.

LIMBONG: And for you and other critics, it just reminded them of all the times when their culture was embraced in America, but the people not so much. He wrote a parody of Trillin's poem called "Have They Run Out Of White Poems Yet," that lays that out.

YU: (Reading) So that's maybe where I should begin, when my family arrived from Fujian. The country they found was now eager for Chinese food, but not its people. We're now just a dish on the menu for gourmets to sink their teeth into.

LIMBONG: Let's put aside the controversy over the language for a sec though because some people might see the point Trillin was making about the varieties of food. Jennifer Lee is a food writer, author of the book "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles," which looks at Chinese food and Chinese immigration in America. She says that as more immigrants come from different parts of China, the different varieties of food will grow. And as a food writer herself, yeah, sometimes staying on top of things is a little rough.

JENNIFER LEE: I can appreciate the larger point of how it can be stressful. You have to feel like you have to keep up, especially when people look to you as someone who's very knowledgeable about food.

LIMBONG: And Trillin does know his stuff. He wrote a long profile about the Chinese chef Peter Chang. He's got a book about local specialties from all over the world. Trillin himself wasn't available for comment, but a press person for The New Yorker pointed out Trillin meant no offense adding that he satirized Italian food in the past and wrote a similar problem about French food back in 2003. And that wasn't meant as a putdown of the French. Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.