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
THE FORTUNE COOKIE CHRONICLES: ADVENTURES IN THE WORLD OF CHINESE FOOD.
By Jennifer 8. Lee. Twelve. 307 pages. $24.99.
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.
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.
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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