The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

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    Columbus Ledger-Enquirer: It’s Our Kind of Chinese

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | October 26, 2008

    From the Columbus Paper! (No, not Ohio, in Georgia). It’s more a summary, but I like the fact she quotes on my obsession point at the end. I’d thought no one has ever noticed.

    Columbus (Georgia) Ledger-Enquirer
    April 3, 2008
    It’s Our Kind of Chinese
    By Sonya Sorich

    Nearly everybody has one. Maybe yours is marked by a double-digit menu number. An appetite-inducing photo. A name you probably don’t pronounce correctly.

    You eat it at the coffee table. In bed. Straight out of the white take-out carton.

    It is your favorite Chinese restaurant entree.

    Collectively, those dishes help create Jennifer 8. Lee’s “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food.”

    The book traces a journey inspired by a surge in lottery winners that Lee later discovers was a result of lucky numbers from fortune cookies.

    Evidence that Chinese restaurants and all their defining factors — from chop suey to soy sauce packets — have earned an American cultural significance that transcends the limits of a one-hour dining experience.

    “There are some forty thousand Chinese restaurants in the United States — more than the number of McDonald’s, Burger Kings and KFCs combined,” Lee writes.

    Later, she adds, “Our benchmark for Americanness is apple pie. But ask yourself: How often do you eat apple pie? How often do you eat Chinese food?”

    Through national and international travel, Lee examines elements like the fortune cookie’s conflicting origins, the dangerous life of a Chinese takeout deliveryman and efforts to introduce the white signature to-go cartons in China. (It didn’t work.)

    But the book’s biggest lesson is that in America, Chinese food isn’t really that Chinese after all.

    Flavors and appearances are altered to make for entrees more consistent with American tastes, Lee concludes.

    There are extreme examples — Philly cheesesteak egg rolls, a chow mein sandwich, Louisiana’s Szechuan alligator entree.

    But the author also visits Hunan Province, the ancestral home of General Tso, and learns that the creator of General Tso’s chicken can’t even recognize the American version of the dish.

    Also, Lee calls chop suey “the biggest culinary joke played by one culture on another.”

    She learns that fortune cookies, too, have come to display messages reinforcing American ideals. Among the cookies in the book is one with a lesson originally preached — verbatim — by Yoda from “Star Wars.”

    But the book is just as much a personal journey for Lee, a metro reporter for the New York Times and the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Her middle name, “8,” connotes prosperity in Chinese.

    As such, the author is cognizant of the fact that her obsession with Chinese food is more than merely a matter of taste.

    “Obsessions pick us more than we pick them. They control us more than we control them,” she writes.

    She adds, “Why do people become obsessed with bird-watching, solving mathematical proofs, making money? Maybe they’re trying to complete themselves, to fill a void, whether it be through beauty, truth or security.”

    Contact Sonya Sorich at 706-571-8516 or

    Topics: Chinese Food, Reviews | No Comments »

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