By Jennifer 8. Lee | March 2, 2008
Yay. My first newspaper review. And it’s a nice one. My favorite line is where she calls it “also an information-packed page-turner.” I like this line too ” This kind of contextualizing and deepening of understanding is what the best food writing and literary journalism can do.”
March 1, 2008 Saturday
West eats East; A fact-filled look at Chinese food, which just might be America’s national cuisine
By Bich Minh Nguyen
In the past few years the world of non-fiction has offered up a profusion of investigative books about food, from examinations of food culture (Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation,” Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”), to histories distilled into a bite (Mark Kurlansky’s “Salt: A World History,” Jack Turner’s “Spice: The History of a Temptation”), to experiments with cooking and eating (Julie Powell’s “Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen,” Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life”). These books speak to our increasing need to know where our food comes from, and how in the act of choosing a meal we are also participating in a global economy.In her absorbing new book, “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food,” New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee (“8” connotes prosperity in Chinese) drives home the point that food culture is culture, and our dining habits reflect our identities, backgrounds and sociopolitical environments.
What most Americans know as Chinese food would be more properly termed American Chinese food, a category that includes chop suey and lemon chicken, dishes born in the U.S. Given, as Lee points out, that there are about 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S., “more than the number of McDonald’s, Burger Kings, and KFCs combined,” Chinese food might be our national cuisine. “Our benchmark for Americanness is apple pie,” she writes. “But ask yourself. How often do you eat apple pie? How often do you eat Chinese food?”
Chinese restaurants are ubiquitous, usually taking the form of urban carryout shops and suburban buffets. But how did these restaurants flourish across the American landscape? For the most part they are independently run, so how is it they seem to share similar characteristics, such as gigantic menus filled with egg rolls, garish red sweet and sour sauce, and General Tso’s chicken?
Each chapter answers these questions and more, examining soy sauce, the distinctive shape of takeout boxes favored by Chinese restaurants, and fortune cookies, which Lee discovers are Japanese in origin. Today the cookies have become harbingers of actual fortunes, as dozens of people have won Powerball lotteries by playing the numbers printed on their cookies’ slips of paper. Lee’s careful unearthing of the fortune cookie’s history is one example of the impressive amount of research she invested in this book.
Lee writes from the perspective of an ABC — “American-born Chinese” — and her work is journalistic and personal; her study of food is also a study of immigration. As she continually seeks stories and connections between China and the U.S., she shows how Chinese food has not just pervaded American culture but become it:
“China is the largest immigrant-producing country in the history of the world. The United States is the largest immigrant-accepting country in the history of the world. I, like the Chinese food I grew up with, sit at their crosscurrents. Look at me, and you may see someone Chinese. Close your eyes, and you will hear someone American.”
“The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” is also a search for origins, and to this end Lee travels to China to track down the story of Gen. Tso, whose eponymous chicken dish is virtually unknown in China. And because real Chinese food is a far cry from the deep-fried mainstays of buffets in America, Lee takes on the task of searching for the best Chinese restaurants outside of China (London and Mumbai have strong contenders, but Vancouver pulls to the front).
The heart of “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” lies beyond the table to where people work and live: behind the menu, behind the cash register, behind the wok. Lee’s writing is at its most compelling in her profiles of immigrants, legal and illegal, many of whom have “paid tens of thousands of dollars” to human smugglers so they can spend “twelve-hour days and six-day weeks . . . frying, delivering, waiting tables, stirring, busing, chopping” and, more often than not, risking their lives and livelihood in the process. Lee traces the journey of immigrants from Fuzhou, a region in China that is “the single largest exporter of Chinese restaurant workers in the world today” to New York, a major nerve center for job postings:
“[W]hiteboards and walls of Post-it notes . . . list the hundreds, if not thousands, of Chinese-restaurant job openings that pass through the area each week. Three numbers identify a job to a restaurant worker: the monthly salary, the area code where the restaurant is located, and the number of hours by bus from New York City. . . .
“A job could be summed up thus: $2,400, 440 near Cleveland, 10 hours.”
Chinese workers pay a tremendous toll — financial, physical, emotional and often tragic — as seen in Lee’s poignant profile of a family that tries to run a restaurant in a rural town in Georgia and ends up breaking down under the strain of miscommunication and outsiderness. In bringing the stories of these workers to the page, Lee truly addresses what it means, politically and socially, when we order from or sit down to eat in our local Chinese restaurants. This kind of contextualizing and deepening of understanding is what the best food writing and literary journalism can do.
“The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” is also an information-packed page-turner that will have you eager to share fascinating tidbits out loud: Did you know that Chinese food delivery in New York was jump-started in 1976 by an enterprising woman trying to save her flagging restaurant? Or that P.F. Chang’s was started in Arizona by one of the Caucasian developers of the Outback Steakhouse chain? Backed by exhaustive research, investigation, and a clear and detailed prose style, the book delves further still into the twinned history of 20th Century American Chinese immigration and food. It is a study of lives often overlooked: the immigrant who takes your phone order, the busboy who clears away your hot-and-sour soup bowl, the guy who brings mu shu pork to your door. Their stories and journeys, and those of the Americanized food they cook and serve, “represent the glocalization — global localization — of Chinese food.”
Bich Minh Nguyen is the author of the memoir “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner.”
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