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The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food

If you think McDonald’s is the most ubiquitous restaurant experience in America, consider that there are more Chinese restaurants in America than McDonalds, Burger Kings, and Wendys combined. New York Times reporter and Chinese-American (or American-born Chinese). In her search, Jennifer 8 Lee traces the history of Chinese-American experience through the lens of the food. In a compelling blend of sociology and history, Jenny Lee exposes the indentured servitude Chinese restaurants expect from il

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3 thoughts on “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food”

  1. 77 of 84 people found the following review helpful
    4.0 out of 5 stars
    An interesting little book, March 2, 2008
    By 
    Mark Greenbaum (South Orange, New Jersey United States) –
    (REAL NAME)
      

    I was intrigued by this book when I read a glowing review of it on Yahoo news, and was able to finish it over several hours sitting in the local bookstore. Much like a fine Chinese meal, the Fortune Cookie Chronicles is fairly light, quite tasty, and in the end both filling and fulfilling. Because the book is so well written, it’s a lot of fun and you’ll learn more than you could have ever imagined about Chinese food in the United States (as well as elsewhere), something many of us — myself included — have long taken for granted.

    The book traces the incredible history of Chinese food in the United States, with the author setting out to explore why it is so popular across the country. Along the way she is able to spin delicious yarns on such topics as the birth of General Tso’s chicken (including a hilarious trip to the General’s home town in rural China where absolutely no one has ever heard of the dish), the Japanese origins of the fortune cookie, the reasons for the Jewish love of Chinese cuisine, how human smuggling supplies the many thousands of Chinese workers who run Chinese restaurants across the country, and other areas.

    One of the most fascinating things I learned from the book is that the Chinese food we all know and love barely resembles real Chinese food — the type of food people eat in China. In traveling to China to sample and research food and culture across the large nation, the author herself was initially surprised by this, and as the book progresses the fact helps demonstrate how the development of Chinese(/American) food is symbolic of the broader change to the culture of Chinese people who have moved to and settled their families in America.

    Indeed, more than being about the strange growth and metamorphosis of Chinese dishes in the U.S., this book is about how America has impacted Chinese-American culture and vice versa. The fact that Chinese dishes have been altered in order to fit the tastes of Americans reflects how many Chinese-American citizens, the author included, have culturally changed from their own parents and grandparents. While many Chinese-American dishes beloved here are totally unknown abroad — and often even disliked by Chinese people in the Far East; such as General Tso’s chicken — their popularity has spawned the worldwide creation of a unique amalgam of cuisine that is both Chinese and American and not solely representative of either group alone (the brief section on P.F. Chang’s as a form of upscale American-Chinese food is fascinating and exactly on point of this phenomenon). Furthermore, as the book shows, the popularity of Chinese food in the U.S. spreads across all of the states, cultures, ethnicities, and religions. The author does a fantastic job of dissecting the sheer love of Chinese food in all 50 states, and the history behind that astonishing popularity.

    Upon finishing I was somewhat amazed that someone could have spent so much time and effort researching Chinese food, but it is clear that the author — Jennifer 8. Lee of the New York Times — has a passion for the subject, as well as an interest in exploring her own identity as a Chinese-American. Admittedly, while I read the Times every single day and have long noticed Ms. Lee’s byline, all I could remember about her work was her cool middle name (perhaps the neatest middle initial and name since Harry S Truman). I will look out for her more now, as she is a superb writer and able to speak with a witty and lively prose. I am sure her future books will be equally as compelling.

    If I can make a small complaint about the book, it probably goes on for a bit too long, ending at just under 300 pages. While this does not seem like much, I think the author could have cut a lot of the material that was included in the later chapters. Nevertheless, this is still a fun book to read, and a good gift.

    Four stars.

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  2. 30 of 34 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    Confucius Say: You Will Look at a Chinese Restaurants Differently After Reading This Book, March 5, 2008
    By 
    Frederick S. Goethel “wildcatcreekbooks” (Central Valley, CA) –
    (VINE VOICE)
      
    (REAL NAME)
      

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    I knew that fortune cookies were not “real” Chinese food, as I knew that chop suey was an invention for American palettes. What I did not know, however, was the incredible back story behind each, as well as many of the other topics covered in this book.

    While the material on fortune cookies and chop suey was interesting, it was the stories of how Chinese nationals (PRCs) will do whatever it takes to get to the United States and what that can entail that I found fascinating. I also was amazed that the area in China supplying the majority of restaurant workers has shifted over the years, and that the population of the region has shrunk so much that schools have closed.

    Other interesting features in the book include how Chinese restaurants sprout up and how they are bought and sold in a near underground economy, how fights have broken out over soy sauce, how the little white bucket used for take out came about and why you rarely see it anywhere other than at Chinese restaurants, as well as more mundane topics about the food.

    The author has an obvious passion for the subject, and covers it well. She writes well, and has a sense of humor about some of the items that is somewhat infectious. A very well written and researched book that I would recommend to anyone interested in food. It will certainly change the way you look at a Chinese restaurant the next time you eat at one!

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  3. 17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    Authentic Inathenticity, April 1, 2008
    By 
    R. Hardy “Rob Hardy” (Columbus, Mississippi USA) –
    (TOP 100 REVIEWER)
      
    (HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)
      
    (REAL NAME)
      

    “Our benchmark for Americanness is apple pie. But ask yourself: How often do you eat apple pie? How often do eat Chinese food?” That’s what Jennifer 8. Lee (the 8 is a number that connotes prosperity for the Chinese) writes in _The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food_ (Twelve Books), and although “As American as apple pie” may never be replaced by “As American as Chinese food,” she has an interesting point. It is a point made in many different ways in each chapter of her funny and enlightening book which is about what would be better called American Chinese food, a type of cuisine that is served all over the United States in more restaurants than McDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC combined, and is also something you can find all over the world. I remember, for instance, fifteen years ago being in Amsterdam and going to a Chinese restaurant, and it was almost as if we had stepped into one on Main Street, USA. There were red and gold décor, pictures of dragons and waterfalls, pictures of the specialties above the register, a menu printed in black and red, with egg rolls, chop suey, and all the old favorites, and they all tasted just like home.

    Lee is a New York Times reporter and an American-born Chinese who got intrigued by a 2005 Powerball lottery drawing when an unexpectedly high number of people got five of six numbers correct; they had picked the lucky numbers on from a fortune cookie. Because these cookies were distributed all over the US, there were winners all over, and Lee set out to visit the winners, their particular Chinese restaurants, and trace back to the factory that made the cookies and the people who wrote the fortunes. Among the “Chinese” foods described here, the cookie is one that didn’t originate in America. The cookies originated in Japan, and are not so ancient as Confucius, arising sometime in the nineteenth century. There is a whole chapter here (“The Long March of General Tso”) about my favorite Chinese dish, the general’s chicken. It will not surprise you, perhaps, that the general did not invent the chicken recipe, but it may be more Chinese than chop suey, which is unknown in China and may have originated as a joke by a Chinese chef in America who was told to concoct something that would “pass as Chinese”. General Zuo (a more modern transliteration of “Tso”) Zongtang is a historical figure venerated by the Chinese for his gifts as a military leader. He died in 1885, but his name lives on because of his chicken. When Lee goes to the general’s ancestral village in rural Hunan, she finds that the village is proud of its famous son as a general, but has no idea about his branching off into victuals. Lee showed a waitress at a restaurant there a picture of General Tso’s chicken, getting the reply, “It doesn’t look like chicken.” “No one here eats this,” says an old farmer. When she explains that many Americans know the general’s name, one villager is not surprised. “He was very talented. A lot of people respected and admired him.” Lee didn’t have the heart to say that no one in America knows him except for his chicken dish. It’s not even his dish, but may be closer to General Ching’s chicken, and Ching was the mentor to Tso. And even Ching’s is not close. A Hunan chef is dismayed by the taste: “The taste of Hunan cuisine is not sweet… That’s not right. This isn’t authentic.”

    He is missing the point! There isn’t much authentic about American Chinese food except that it has a wonderful uniformity wherever it is served. You can count on it. A foreign service officer serving in Iraq, who maybe ought to be trying exotic kebabs and hummus, says, “It’s a taste of home. What could be more American than beer and take-out Chinese?” There are wonderful surprises here about this favorite food. Lee traces how immigrants come, mostly from Fuzhou, and are posted to different locales in the United States (some of this story is pretty grim). She shows that Chinese take out, the grandfather of all takeouts, was started in 1976 in New York by an enterprising woman whose restaurant was about to go under. The soy sauce packets you get with your meal probably contain no soy. There is a hilarious story of a kosher Chinese restaurant (“Moshe Dragon”) which caused an uproar serving non-kosher duck to its customers, a story of religious scandal and destroyed reputations. Memoir, history, and sociological study, these chronicles are a delight, and if you are like me, you won’t be able to get through the book without ordering from your local Chinese restaurant. Explain that you insist on the authentic chicken of General Tso.

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