The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

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    Boston Globe: “revelations come fast and frequent”

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | April 23, 2008

    Wow. They are still running reviews of my book(!). The Boston Globe today printed its review by Ralph Ranalli. Interesting that he is astute to point out that Chinese food has “a veritable buffet of cheap metaphors” (I will note many of which have been used by headine writers (egg drop scoop, lo mein street, wok on)


    ‘Fortune Cookie Chronicles’ delivers tasty cultural history
    By Ralph Ranalli, Globe Staff | April 23, 2008
    The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food
    By Jennifer 8. Lee
    Twelve Books, 308 pp., $24.99

    For better or for worse, critiquing a book about Chinese food’s place in the modern world presents a reviewer with a veritable buffet of cheap metaphors.

    One could say, for example, that the book was a pu pu platter of mixed styles (true, in this case), or that, after finishing, the reader was hungry again for more an hour later (also true). However, unlike in most cases that involve interaction between myself and Chinese food, I’ll try to exercise a bit of self-control.

    Thankfully, New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee does the same in her first book, “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food.” Taking on a project that is ambitious in scope – I would love to have her frequent flier miles – Lee delivers a smart work that is at once fascinating, surprising, and devoid, mostly, of tired similes.

    Born in the United States of Chinese immigrant parents, Lee confesses herself obsessed with Chinese food, in particular with the Chinese-American variety. She backs that up with research and legwork, and the result is a book that combines the muckraking of Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” with the globe-trotting reach of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations.”

    Lee starts off by making a compelling case that her topic is worth the effort. After all, she writes, there are more than 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States alone, “more than the number of McDonald’s, Burger Kings, and KFCs combined.” For most of those restaurants, the menus have a standardization that would make a Ray Kroc or a Dave Thomas proud. Think about it – when was the last time you visited a Chinese restaurant that didn’t have pork-fried rice, shrimp lo mein, or General Gao’s (or Tso’s or Zho’s) chicken on the menu?

    I had always assumed that the reason for the sameness was that the menus represented a sort of greatest hits version of the dishes people in China eat. Yet in a chapter entitled “The Biggest Culinary Joke Played by One Culture on Another,” Lee begins exploring the book’s central revelation that the Chinese food most of us know is a wholly American invention. What ensues is an engaging cultural history, as she traces Chinese food’s evolution from the first chop suey parlors in the mid-19th century to the invention of delivery in New York City and the adoption of Chinese as the chosen food of American Jewry.

    Along the way, revelations come fast and frequent. Much of the book centers on her quest to discover whether fortune cookies are, in fact, Japanese in origin. Then there is the issue of soy sauce, with Lee exposing that much of the stuff you get with Chinese takeout in the United States has no soy in it.

    Perhaps the most eye-opening material in the book, though, is the author’s examination of the social cost of America’s love affair with Chinese food, from the dangers faced by Chinese delivery men in urban areas to the hardships of immigrant restaurant workers who are shipped around the United States like so many crates of plum sauce. Lee also conducts her own search for the “greatest Chinese restaurant in the world,” in which she explores the influence of the cuisine – and local influences on it – across six continents and 23 countries.

    The only place where the book falters a bit is when Lee, who has as her middle name the numeral 8, which connotes prosperity in Chinese culture – relates American Chinese food to her own personal questions about identity. While she opens that door, it feels like she never goes all the way through. A short chapter about how her search for Chinese food became a search for her authentic self feels tacked on, and the concluding sentiment is one of the few spots where Lee’s writing slips toward cliche. America, she writes, is like a big stir fry where “our flavors blend together in a sauce shared by all.” Ouch.

    On the whole, however, “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” is an engaging read that serves up a healthy side dish of truth with one of the world’s favorite cuisines.

    Ralph Ranalli is a member of the Globe Staff.

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