By Jennifer 8. Lee | March 8, 2008
John C. Ensslin reviews The Fortune Cookie Chronicles in The Rocky Mountain News and gives the book an A. I’m like goodness, I haven’t received a grade since senior semester of college!
Most interesting critique…the hunt for the greatest Chinese restaurant in the world. Thinks it’s labor intensive (it was) and doesn’t add that much to the book (debatable). My editor and I had discussed the merits of this chapter. Thank god we kept it shortish. But the value of doing that research is more subtle because the travels there informed a lot of the insight in other parts of the book (i.e. the existence of American-style Chinese food in South Korea!) , and the overall vision of the book.
Cracking the cookie: Delightful surprises fill up author’s tasty trip into the world of Chinese food
By John C. Ensslin
Friday, March 7, 2008
You could say that Jennifer 8 Lee is a bit obsessed with Chinese food.
But as obsessions go, this is a good one – especially for readers of her new book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles.
Lee, a reporter for The New York Times, was riding the subway one day when she came across a brief newspaper item on a fluke in a Powerball lottery. The item stated that 110 people had won either a first or second prize – a statistical anomaly that eventually was traced back to a surprising source: They had all pegged their bets to six numbers found in a fortune cookie.
That brief bit of newsprint also could have served as Lee’s own fortune. If so, it might have read as follows: “You will spend years traveling the world unraveling the mysteries of Chinese restaurants.” Lee started out doing a story for the Times that evolved into a fascinating book.
The heart of this tale is not really about food at all. It’s a journey into the complex culture, history and economics that inform any Chinese restaurant in any town. Among its many themes, the book explores:
* The universal appeal of Chinese restaurants;
* The surprising origins of the fortune cookie;
* The rise of takeout food;
* The politics of soy sauce;
* The man behind General Tso’s Chicken;
* Why Jewish diners love Chinese food.
Lee (whose middle name “8” connotes prosperity in Chinese) does so in a richly rewarding and entertaining work that answers just about everything you ever wanted to know about Chinese food – and then some.
For example, she delves into the economics of Chinese restaurants. There are more than 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S, double the number of McDonald’s – and consider that this has been achieved without any national marketing campaign. Somehow these restaurants produce food that’s as consistent, inexpensive and tasty as fast food, without the benefit of a central corporate office. They may represent the ultimate wisdom of crowds – a cuisine that evolved from thousands of small decisions rather than one centralized corporate edict.
Even more surprising, the author makes a convincing case for the fortune cookie originating with the Japanese in Los Angeles, then popularized by the Chinese in the aftermath of World War II.
Lee also doesn’t shy away from some of the downsides of running a Chinese restaurant, detailing the extraordinarily hard work involved. One of the best chapters in the book is the tale of a family she knew that nearly broke up trying to run a Chinese restaurant in a small town in Georgia.
And she’s not above poking some fun at herself either. In trying to understand the affinity Jews have for Chinese cuisine, she traveled to the Chinese city of Kaifeng, where a community of Chinese Jews once lived. There, she found an old woman who traces her ancestry to that community.
” ‘Why,’ I asked, ‘do Jews in America like Chinese food so much?’
“With a glint in her eye, she slapped the wooden table.
“I leaned in. This was the insight for which I had traveled thousands of miles, walked along a highway at midnight, and scoured alleyways.
“Her Buddhist koan-like response was profound in its simplicity:
‘Because Chinese food tastes good.’ ”
There are other charming, funny and sad characters who populate this book, such as a Chinese food deliveryman who was missing for days and presumed murdered when, as it turns out, he was stuck in a broken elevator shaft.
One of my favorites is Lee’s encounter with Donald Lau, a man who for many years wrote literally thousands of the fortunes mass-produced and distributed nationwide. “At his peak he wrote maybe a hundred fortunes a month,” Lee writes. “The effort drained him. A decade into his soothsaying career, Lau became stymied by writer’s block. He retired as their chief fortune cookie writer in 1995.”
She quotes a fortune cookie company official as saying, “He told me it was the hardest job he ever got. He ran out of ideas. He couldn’t write anymore.”
Lee’s book is chock-full of such gems. There really is only one chapter that misfires. While she was working on the book, Lee’s editor suggested that she set out to find “the world’s greatest Chinese restaurant.” She undertook this seemingly impossible task, traveling to cities such as Paris, Dubai, Mumbai and Rome in her pursuit. But while this is perhaps the most labor-intensive chapter of the book, it’s also the least rewarding and most unconvincing. It reads like a segment on the Food Network.
Fortunately, this is unlike all the other chapters in the book. Overall, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is a marvelous work of journalism, history and exploration of an enduring cultural institution. It’s also a pure pleasure to read. After finishing the book, you’ll never take for granted the small pleasures you experience the next time your order of beef with broccoli, white rice and tea arrives steaming at your table.
John C. Ensslin is a staff writer for the Rocky Mountain News.
The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food
* By Jennifer 8 Lee. Twelve Books, 320 pages, $24.99.
* Grade: A
Nibble on these tidbits from The Fortune Cookie Chronicles:
* There’s no such person as P.F. Chang. P.F. stands for Paul Fleming, one of the founders of the Outback Steakhouse chain who started the Chinese chain after he was disappointed with the Chinese food in Phoenix.
* Contrary to what some might think, chop suey isn’t a popular dish in China. Chop suey means “odds and ends” in Cantonese.
* Originally called “food pails,” the white takeout containers used at Chinese restaurants originated in the early 20th century to hold shucked oysters. They became commonplace in Chinese restaurants after World War II.
* Most of the soy sauce packets found in Chinese takeout are manufactured by a Totowa, N.J., company called Kari-Out. Generally, American-made soy sauce contains no soy, consisting of water, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, caramel coloring and corn syrup.
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