The Real Problem with Calvin Trillin’s ‘Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?’

Trillin’s verse doesn’t give us enough reason to think its parodic heart is any more honorable than its bigoted tongue.

Or so says Katy Waldman in the latest salvo against Calvin Trillin’s ‘Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?‘. But is it really a feature of effective satire that you know it’s the work of an honourable heart?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s racist – as Timothy Yu’s piece in the New Republic definitively shows – and Trillin’s heart may well be rotten to the core, but I was hoping Waldman was finally going to shred it for another reason: for being not just a work of bad but of obviously misplaced satire.

I don’t know about Brooklyn, but hipster food trends in London, as far as I’m aware, don’t really revolve around different provincial Chinese cuisines (though I’d love to find a Fukien or Uighur place!). They’re more about taking a particular dish, removing it from its geo-culinary context and whacking some sweet potato fries on the side.

Hence the “bao” place which just opened up around the corner from us in Peckham that serves deep-fried bao s’mores and, on weekends, “Bao Benedicts” replete with ethically-sourced bacon, wilted spinach and hollandaise sauce (it also does a pulled chicken bun called “Bao Diddley”…).

If Trillin had, as he maintains, actually wanted to lampoon the “food-obsessed bourgeoisie” this might have been a better – or at least more recognisable – place to start: the appropriation/decontextualisation of non-western “street food”; the garnishing of the recognisable with the superficial condiment of the Other.

As it is, it just seems like Trillin has a weirdly crotchety dislike of diasporic groups setting up restaurants that don’t reflect his own (peculiarly westernised) view of what Chinese food should look like, i.e. chow mein.

Satire doesn’t have to be honourable – far from it. But it should have a recognisable target, a point. When I first read Trillin’s poem in The New Yorker, nestled appropriately in the middle of a long piece about the Stateside boom in mezcal (a Mexican spirit made by distilling agave plants), I wasn’t so much offended as bored. What struck me most was its badness. Its pointlessness. And that should be held as the first – perhaps most damning – mark against it.

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