By Jennifer 8. Lee | March 9, 2008
The Hartford Courant publishes a review by Steve Weinberg.
Nice phrases: “Alternately breezy and cerebral, it serves as an appetizer platter, a bowl of hot and sour soup, an array of main dishes, tea and dessert â€” simultaneously.” and “Flashes of insight punctuate the text.”
He has his criticism about the writing and structure, which I acknowledge as fair: “The book is not a literary masterpiece â€” portions are repetitious, the organizational structure seems murky and the breezy tone is occasionally cloying. Fortunately, none of those minor problems sinks the superb content served up.”
(I am never going to be worshiped for my sentence structure. Not sure what parts are repetitious, but not surprised. Yes. Organizational structural was tough and yes, I could see overdosing on the breeziness by some people’s tolerance). But I’m glad he’s like, it’s such a fun book anyway because that is what I was hoping would compensate for the writing flaws. Full review after the jump.
Sending Out For Chinese? Better Read This Book First
By STEVE WEINBERG
Special to The Courant
March 9, 2008
For folks addicted to reading and to Chinese restaurants, it is difficult to imagine a more satisfying book than “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” by Jennifer 8. (yes, the numeral 8; hold on for an explanation) Lee.
Alternately breezy and cerebral, it serves as an appetizer platter, a bowl of hot and sour soup, an array of main dishes, tea and dessert â€” simultaneously.
Although Lee takes her quest for understanding beyond the United States, it is mind-boggling to learn that the U.S. has 40,000 restaurants serving such fare â€” more than all the McDonalds, KFCs and Burger Kings combined. I don’t know why the number surprised me, given that I’ve dined at Chinese restaurants in Iowa farm towns with populations smaller than urban high schools, but still.
Lee has not visited all 40,000, nor all the Chinese restaurants overseas. Sometimes, though, the vastness of her research suggests she has done so.
Lee is well-equipped for the research. As an ABC (American-born Chinese), she grew up eating authentic cuisine in her mother’s New York City Upper West Side kitchen. Lee speaks Mandarin Chinese, holds an economics/applied mathematics degree from Harvard University and has studied at Beijing University and is a New York Times reporter. These credentials would be difficult for any other author of a similar book to match.
The book is not a literary masterpiece â€” portions are repetitious, the organizational structure seems murky and the breezy tone is occasionally cloying. Fortunately, none of those minor problems sinks the superb content served up.
They cover, among other subjects, the origin and production of fortune cookies, the soy sauce mystique, the strange invention of chop suey, language barriers and the mechanics of Chinese restaurant takeout, not to mention the search for the finest food served by any Chinese restaurant in the world. (Her answer is on page 248.)
Flashes of insight punctuate the text. Searching for the origin of the fortune cookie served in seemingly every Chinese restaurant throughout the United States, Lee realizes, to her surprise, that in China nobody produces or consumes them. Then she realizes the cookie is a Japanese creation. While determining why those of Chinese descent appropriated the Japanese treat, Lee realizes, to her humanitarian horror, the answer lies in the U.S. government policy of rounding up Japanese-Americans and placing them in camps during World War II. Those imprisoned behind barbed wire could not continue their fortune cookie businesses, so a different group stepped in.
Some of Lee’s insights involve her own heritage and psyche:
“This book began as a quest to understand Chinese food. But three years, six continents, 23 countries and 42 states later, I realize it was actually a personal journey to understand myself.”
For Lee, researching did not turn out to be risk-free. She put herself in peril while visiting dangerous places, investigating sensitive subjects such as mistreatment of Chinese immigrants employed in restaurants.
The largest risk for the consumers of the book might be this: A constant craving for Chinese food. I could not stop thinking about my next Chinese meal as I turned the pages.
The second risk might be this: During the next meal at a Chinese restaurant, the reader could offend companions by sounding like a know-it-all. I had to resist that temptation.
Oh yes, as promised, about the No. 8 between “Jennifer” and “Lee.” In the Chinese lexicon, it connotes prosperity. May she prosper from this book.
Steve Weinberg’s newest book, “Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller,” appears this month from W.W. Norton.
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