The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

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    San Francisco Chronicle: “Prose is thrown out in confident tendrils”

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | March 8, 2008

    Wow. The San Francisco Chronicle got the co-founder of, Kevin Smokler, to review my book. (I’m actually in the process right now of figuring out how to convert my .xml file of appearances into a .csv template for book events so I can put events on So is on my mind)

    I think his review is pretty much right on target…which is that you may or may not buy into the structural conceit of the book, but it’s so much fun anyway, so who cares.

    The structure was really, really hard. I have an Excel spreadsheet to prove how much I had to think about it.

    I will say however, that I intended the Open Source chapter to bring a lot of things together: menu delivery, fortune cookies, general tso’s chicken, the hunt for the greatest restaurant around the world, the immigration patterns, etc. But maybe it didn’t work for a lot of people.

    A hunger for knowledge, a yen for Chinese food

    Kevin Smokler
    Friday, March 7, 2008
    The Fortune Cookie Chronicles:Adventures in the World of Chinese Food
    By Jennifer 8. Lee
    Twelve; 292 pages; $24.99

    In the spring of 2005, New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee covered the unlikely coincidence of 110 people holding winning Powerball lottery tickets, nearly 30 times the predicted figure. That the lucky numbers emanated from fortune cookies given away at Chinese restaurants got the journalist thinking: How has Chinese food reached such a ubiquity in America (there are more Chinese restaurants than McDonald’s, Burger Kings or KFCs combined) that it could affect the outcome of something as anonymously democratic as the lottery?

    That question is the stomach grumble of Lee’s book, “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food.” The remainder of her volume doesn’t quite feed it. Lee promises procedural journalism, a how-and-here’s-why book like the work of Michael Pollan and Elizabeth Royte, but instead delivers an intoxicating ethnographic study of the history and culture of American Chinese cuisine. No, this wasn’t exactly what we ordered nor what it looked like on the menu. But we support her digressions because the book we got is probably just as much fun as the one she promised.

    In 18 robust chapters, Lee marches like a streetwise Henry Petroski – the Duke University engineering professor who has penned book-length examinations of forks, toothpicks and pencils – and leaves no bean cake unturned. History, food science, social observation and personal narrative are all brought in with plenty of room for origins of General Tso’s chicken, why MSG is bad for you but tastes so good, how delivering Chinese food is among the most dangerous professions in America and that P.F. Chang is actually a white guy named Paul Fleming. And if you are still left with strained memories of cultural dumplings like “the Great Kosher Duck Scandal of 1989” and the 1983 court decision in which San Francisco, not Los Angeles, was declared the birthplace of the fortune cookie, wait about two pages. Lee will grab you by the wrist and rush you off to the next steaming pot of curiosity.

    That description may make “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” sound like the literary equivalent of a memorabilia collection, self-contained pieces with a common theme, yet no story to tie them together. And if you take Lee’s premise at its word, that’s the taste left behind. The lottery story feels dropped in at capricious moments, like a radiator rattling in the next room. Its distracting presence tries to make itself the framework of the book when really it’s only the front door and does the overall structure a disservice by making the chapters feel like something they are not: a collection of newspaper articles with weak ties, hastily assembled to feel like a complete book. Lee and “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” would have been best served by one last careful edit, to keep themes steady instead of erratic and to make chapter sequencing feel logical instead of like dessert before soup.

    That’d be irreparable damage if Lee wasn’t such a gifted storyteller and if I didn’t have such a lovely time listening. Her research is thoughtful and often hilarious (a section on why Americans will not eat anything clear, gelatinous, rubbery or black should be the new masthead for your favorite food blog) but avoids the get-my-money’s-worth slathering all too common in micro-examination of the everyday. Prose is thrown out in confident tendrils like balls of string down a staircase. And, in moves of confident poignancy, she gives the virtual slave trade in labor for Chinese restaurants a quiet dignity that respects the subject but doesn’t douse the narrative’s joyous flame.

    As such, “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” goes down fast and flavorful, perhaps more so for Bay Area readers who may be tempted to skip ahead to the sections on the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in San Francisco’s Chinatown (still made by hand for more than half a century) and the Benkyodo sweet shop in business in Japantown since 1906. Between the two lie Lee’s conclusions about the genealogy of the fortune cookie. And although her route there isn’t always clear, the destination is well lit and true.

    Lee is all of 30 years old, a first-time book writer with the reporting skills of a serene veteran. She’s also a first-generation Chinese American, raised on the Upper West side of Manhattan, the birthplace of Chinese food delivery in the 1970s. I learned this from Chapter 3 and Lee’s balanced mix of diligence and elan. And although she admits an autobiographical interest in her story, bruised just slightly by haphazard framing and odd layout, her contagious joy in its telling would have me following her efforts a long way from her comfort zone – but still dreaming of kung pao chicken on the way.

    Kevin Smokler is a writer in San Francisco and the co-founder of

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