I know, I am super late to the game. Everyone worth his or her salt and MSG has already written about Calvin Trillin’s piece about Chinese food “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” in the New Yorker.
I was quite nonplussed at his poem; it was a fairly tasteless poem, at best skirting around blandly with race while trying to give the impression that it was edgy and exciting. However, I was rather intrigued by the second stanza.
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?
I’ll explain why that stanza piqued my interest after this fun story:
Near where I live, there’re a couple of Chinese takeout places. One claimed to be Hunan, but was probably about as Hunan as Trillin’s piece was insightful. Maybe the owners were indeed from Hunan, and that Hunan takeout restaurant merely meant “Hunan people making Chinese American food for people”. In fact, my neighbourhood being primarily Caribbean, Haitian and African American, their best seller, aside from General Tso Chicken Special, was actually fried chicken wings with french fries. Every time I go in there and wait for my order, most of the clientele would order “Fried Chicken Wing w FF”. I was probably the only one who bothers to look at the menu.
One night, after work, I was feeling kinda lazy and I just wanted Chinese takeout. As anyone in the U.S. knows, on Chinese takeout menus, under the noodles section there are usually “chow mein” dishes. I had no idea what chow mein was exactly, but since I speak Mandarin, I assumed it was simply fried noodles, because it sounds like “chao mian” (炒面). In my experience of ordering fried noodles, they’re usually fried wheat or egg noodles. So I went up to the acrylic-shielded counter and ordered in Mandarin, “I’ll have an order of barbecue pork fried noodles (叉烧炒面), number 18.”
She responded back in Mandarin, “Number 18? Oh you want fried rice vermicelli (炒米粉, chao mi fen)?”
I was confused. I asked, “Hang on, doesn’t number 18 say ‘chow mein’? That’s fried (wheat/egg) noodles, right?”
“Ohh. no,” she said. “That ‘chow mein’ is simply something we write for white people. While ‘chow mein’ does sound like fried noodles, it actually refers to rice vermicelli here. White people order ‘chow mein’ and get rice vermicelli and they don’t know the difference anyway.”
“Ah, I see. Uh, ok, so can I get the barbecue pork fried vermicelli then?”
“So who orders the chow mein if most of the people here order fried chicken wings and french fries?”
“Oh, I see.”
“Simple days of chow mein but no stress,/When we never were faced with the threat/Of more provinces we hadn’t met.”? Trillin, I was pretty stressed out ordering that chow mein. I went into that Hunan takeout place expecting to go home with an order of fried egg noodles and left with an order of fried rice vermicelli instead. I’m not sure if universally in New York chow mein is always rice vermicelli, because some of my friends attest to them actually getting egg noodles, but they always order in English. In another Chinese eatery (cha chan teng) in Chinatown, I saw a sign for chow mein, but it was thankfully accompanied by the Chinese characters for rice vermicelli. I confidently ordered the chow mein this time expecting rice vermicelli.
It’s hard enough to be an expert on Chinese food, even as a Chinese person. But Trillin, when you claim that life might have been better in the simple chow mein days, I’m afraid you’ve simply been eating rice vermicelli all along, and it’s hard for me to take you seriously.