The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

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    Toledo Blade: The book argues for a more honest and complex definition of “authenticity.”

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | June 9, 2008

    The Toledo Blade, out of the blue, publishes a review by Jennifer Day. And she quotes one of my favorite passages of the book, which has not been mentioned yet — my comparison of the unbroken fortune cookie to an unexpired lottery ticket.
    Article published Sunday, June 8, 2008
    Fortune cookies open the door to Chinese-American culture

    By Jennifer 8. Lee. Twelve. 307 pages. $24.99.

    In 2005, 110 people won the Powerball jackpot. On the same night. Officials for the 29-state lottery suspected fraud. But the answer turned out to be a lot simpler: The winners had played lucky numbers from fortune cookies.< And lucky they were. The fortune that accompanied them? "All the preparation you've done will finally be paying off."

    That fortune might also apply well to Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. Lee, a cops reporter for the New York Times, is obsessed with Chinese restaurants in America the same way others are obsessed with model-train collections. As a first-generation Chinese-American in New York City, Lee was born around the time Chinese restaurants started delivery service. Growing up, she was a product of her environment, embarrassing her native-born parents by picking lo mein over more authentic dishes.

    And so, when Lee saw the Powerball story mentioned in a newspaper, she put her reporting skills to use. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles loosely weaves together a series of stories about the cultural place Chinese restaurants hold in America, and the risks Chinese immigrants have taken to establish it. Lee writes:”An unbroken fortune cookie and an unexpired lottery ticket: They both hold promise. There is no sense of disappointment, of unfulfilled potential. It’s a bit like youth. Both also ask for a small leap of faith. If you believe in the potential of the lucky number, in the upbeat fortune, you will be happier. It’s a little bit of optimism packaged inside an American import.”

    Lee zips around the world, tracing the origins of fortune cookies back to their surprising roots in Japan, chronicling the treacherous journeys restaurant workers face at the hands of smugglers and circling the globe in a Desert Island-style hunt for the best Chinese restaurant.

    This is not a foodie book. Lee is genuinely fond of General Tso’s chicken and American-style Chinese food that chow hounds would scoff at. The book argues for a more honest and complex definition of “authenticity,” an authenticity blurred by the messy blending of cultures in America.

    Lee has more interesting territory to cover than the semantics of food anyway. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles documents the history, people, and culture of Chinese-American restaurants.

    Running parallel to Lee’s story of the Chinese-American restaurant are snippets of her own experience as an “ABC” – American-born Chinese. Lee is a stronger reporter than storyteller, so her attempt to tell the story of a Chinese diaspora through restaurants only works to a limited degree. But the book is at its best when it’s invested in the people that make the stories. Lee’s instinct for hard-news reporting keeps stories concise, allowing her to cover vast territory in less than 300 pages. Which is smart. Although many stories could be expanded into books of their own – and for that reason occasionally leave you wishing for a little more depth – taken together they make for a richer chronicle than any chapter individually.

    By the end we’ve learned the fortune cookie is Japanese. Made, marketed, and packaged by Chinese. But only a tradition in the United States. Nothing more American than that

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