The Chinese Food Dilemma
by Evelyn Curtis
I stopped after class for some Chinese food
I figured I would just grab a quick bite
For sesame chicken is always good
and I hadn’t had much to eat that night.
I got my food and I got in the car,
and I felt my stomach begin to growl.
So before I had gotten very far,
I decided to sneak a taste of fowl.
I waited until I’d stopped at a light;
I grabbed something tasty without concern.
I took one and then another small bite,
but soon I felt something hot start to burn.
Alas! on my chin, I now have a scar
from eating Chinese food inside my car!
Statistics are an imperfect way to share information. Stats are notoriously unreliable in that they sound factual but are inevitably outdated or biased in some manner in which the data was collected and summarized. So when I share that I read recently that nearly 70% of Chinese restaurants have closed in the United States since the start of the pandemic, you can feel free to object and say the stat is wrong, because from your perspective it is either too big or too small. Yet the statistic is directionally correct. Chinese restaurants have born the brunt, more than any other type of restaurant, during the pandemic not only because of closure of in-restaurant dining reducing income but also because of the blatant anti-Chinese racism that is occurring from the misinformed and small minded who are blaming China and by extension Chinese-Americans and Asian businesses. Despite being ridiculous, the economic downturn has resulted in successful Chinese restaurants that have been institutions for decades, from New York to San Francisco, from small towns to large, to confront the sad reality of bankruptcy and closure. Behind this glaring statistic are family businesses, many passed down through generations, that are having to confront the reality of a change in American dining habits and questioning the opportunity for Chinese food as a profitable venture in or out of traditional urban centers with diverse ethnic populations. If the only Asian food that is going to survive in the United States are chain restaurants, then America will be all the more culturally impoverished in the future for lack of finding ways to help authentic small ethnic restaurants flourish and thrive through the pandemic.
If you haven’t stumbled across the blog – Putasonnetonit – I highly recommend it. Evelyn Curtis set herself the herculean task of writing and sharing a sonnet everyday for a year. I can’t imagine myself writing a limerick every day for a year, let alone a sonnet, so I have huge respect for the undertaking. It would be interesting to ask her what she feels are her top 5 sonnets from that year looking back? I have no idea where this one would rank, but since it is a sonnet about an actual scar she will carry forward for the rest of her life, I thought it might rank up there a bit. Its a great example that sonnet writing doesn’t have to take itself too serious. It can be simply a Polaroid picture of the moment, that might take on more meaning with time, even unexpected meaning. I wonder if the restaurant in which she purchased the food that the sonnet is based still exists?
For many years I had a subscription to The New Yorker and I enjoyed Calvin Trillin’s regular contributions. Trillin shared a view of New York that was illuminating to a Midwesterner. It felt like I had an irascible great Uncle giving me the inside scoop on how the big city works. I was saddened when Trillin was hit with criticism and blow back on his poem below. It wasn’t quite cancel culture, but it was roughing up a veteran journalist who had been sharing his unique perspective for decades with gentle humor and a tinge of grumpiness. I personally don’t think Trillin’s poem rose to the level of the accusations – racism. But since that criticism was invoked, it felt to me that the The New Yorker drifted into blander and blander territory, less interesting while more politically correct. Which is why my subscription eventually lapsed, I ceased to find it compelling. Cancel culture works in both directions and I must admit from the subscription department I am assuming that the editors can’t tell which is the cause; the loss of Trillin like pieces causing subscriptions to dwindle or is it because of “vocal” critics of such work being so outraged they cancel their subscription. In the end the result is the same.
I had a boss many years ago who teased me all the time, teased me in ways that were definitely not always politically correctly and did it in front of the entire group. After several years, I asked a co-worker about it and he said; “You have to realize that he only teases the people he likes. Its when he stops teasing you that you should be worried.” I had never thought about it before in that way. I stopped worrying. I’m not saying that being emotionally inept in your approach to interacting with others is a role model for success as a current business leader, but the truth is the worst insult is to be ignored. Teasing is an acknowledgement that you like the person or institution enough to think about them. Teasing taken too far is bullying and I acknowledge teasing can be racist. But teasing in and of itself is not inherently racist. I consider Trillin’s poem a form of literary teasing, something that has a long history- think Cervantes. In my opinion, its far worse for people to stop supporting Chinese restaurants and see them fail, then to publish a silly poem about all the different kinds of Chinese restaurants and to take the time to make it rhyme. I am guessing that the New York Chinese Restaurant Owners Association, if such a thing exists, would be happy to have Calvin Trillin writing silly poems about the diverse array of thriving Chinese food options in New York in 2021. It would mean that people were walking through those doors and dining. Its far worse that 70% of them have had to close their doors for lack of business.
Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet
by Calvin Trillin
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.
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.
Then Hunan, the birth province of Mao,
Came along with its own style of chow.
o we thought we were finished, and then
A new province arrived: Fukien.
Then respect was a fraction of meagre
For those eaters who’d not eaten Uighur.
And then Xi’an from Shaanxi gained fame,
Plus some others—too many to name.
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?