The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

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    USA Today: “Fortune Cookie is a sweet treat, told in a lively, engaging fashion by a writer who clearly knows, and loves, Chinese cuisine.”

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | March 20, 2008

    Leslie Cauley reviews The Fortune Cookie Chronicles for USA Today.  Overall positive, with some interesting criticisms that I hand’t heard yet, basically TMI. Too many details on Chinese food. Things you wanted to know and didn’t. (Shrug)

    Smart ‘Cookie’ scoops up story of Chinese cuisine

    If you’ve ever wondered about the history of Chinese cuisine, look no further. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles will tell you everything you ever wanted to know — and probably some things you didn’t.

    First-time author Jennifer 8. Lee, an American-born Chinese, takes readers on a global ride through culinary history, dissecting popular myths and, in some cases, misguided notions about Chinese food. (No, she writes, Chinese people don’t eat rats, cats or dogs. Chop suey, it turns out, is purely an American invention.) Her take on the relationship between Jews and Chinese food is, if nothing else, novel.

    Lee, a reporter for The New York Times, is equally relentless in peeling back the layers on General Tso’s chicken, stir-fry and “fortune writing,” industry lingo for the paper epigrams tucked inside fortune cookies. Her dogged explanation of how 110 people scattered across America won a lottery using identical “lucky numbers” — those small numbers printed on fortunes — is fit for a Hollywood movie.

    The author also unravels the mystery of the ubiquitous fortune cookie. According to Lee, the after-dinner treat was actually invented by the Japanese, not the Chinese. Then came World War II. Thousands of Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps, including those with cookie-making machinery. Sensing opportunity — the fortune cookie had yet to go mainstream — entrepreneurial Chinese turned the folded confection into a commercial success, Lee says. (Fortunes in English helped.)

    Some of the more intriguing — and disturbing — parts of the book deal with the ugly business that supports the Chinese restaurant trade, specifically human trafficking.

    According to Lee, there are 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the USA — more than the number of McDonald’s, Burger Kings and KFCs combined — and they require a steady stream of cooks, delivery people and others to survive. For these workers, many of whom are in the USA illegally, life can be exceedingly harsh, she says. “Homicide is the leading cause of on-the-job deaths” of Chinese deliverymen, she writes. “The motive is nearly always robbery.”

    Though Lee’s passion for her subject is undeniable, the mind-numbing crush of details about soy sauce, white carry-out boxes, General Tso’s chicken and more can be overwhelming (and, truth be told, not all that interesting).

    But all in all, Fortune Cookie is a sweet treat, told in a lively, engaging fashion by a writer who clearly knows, and loves, Chinese cuisine.

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