The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

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    The Times of Trenton: Readers are likely to increase their tips after reading about the plight of Chinese restaurant workers

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | October 26, 2008

    This is the same as my Newsday review. But wanted to put it down, again.
    The Times of Trenton

    March 23, 2008

    Chinese food book has right ingredients


    Years ago, at a Japanese Benihana steakhouse, my mother-in-law mortified her children by asking for fortune cookies at the end of the meal. As Jennifer 8. Lee reveals in this filling – and sometimes gut-busting – stir-fry of a book about Chinese food, she wasn’t as off-base as it seemed: Fortune cookies evolved from grilled Japanese biscuits called tsujiura senbei.

    Another surprising morsel that Lee serves up in “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food” (Twelve, 308 pages, $24.95) is that there are some 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States, more than twice the number of McDonald’s, and more than all the stateside McDonald’s, Burger Kings and KFCs combined. In fact, Lee claims, Chinese food has become a more pervasive part of the American diet than the traditional “benchmark for Americanness,” apple pie. What’s going on?Chinese food book has right ingredients

    Lee, an American-born Chinese – sometimes called “ABC” – got pulled into a three-year quest “to unravel the nagging mysteries of Chinese food in America” after a statistically improbable number of people won second prize in a 2005 Powerball lottery, most of whom, it turned out, had gotten their numbers from fortune cookies.

    As Lee quickly discovered, American Chinese food – from chop suey to General Tso’s Chicken – bears little resemblance to authentic Chinese cuisine. For starters, American Chinese food is sweeter, meatier and often fried. Real Chinese food is bonier, less oily, and heavier in pickled and dried ingredients. “Chinese restaurants in America tend to shy away from anything that is recognizably animal,” Lee writes. Americans favor chicken breasts, while Chinese prefer more flavorful chicken feet. Fish in China are served whole, eyeballs intact. Lee explains, “But perhaps most important in American eating is the idea that what goes in the mouth should never come out. That is, there should be nothing where you have to chew on something and then spit out the inedible part.”

    Lee’s fluency in Mandarin Chinese, along with reporting skills honed as a New York Times metro reporter, enable her to pursue myriad aspects of the Chinese food business, including the production of billions of fortune cookies each year, the crippling pressure on fortune-writers to coin new pearls of wisdom, the ubiquitous white takeout carton (“an amazingly elegant product”) and the clear packets of soybean-free “Frankensauce chemical counterfeit” that many Americans know as soy sauce.

    Lee’s inquiries, which span six continents, 23 countries and 42 states, are at times jumbled and overwhelming. In a not entirely successful effort to tie together an often unwieldy book, she returns repeatedly to the history of fortune cookies, using their infiltration into Chinese cuisine as a bellwether of other cross-cultural changes.

    More compelling are her stories, often adapted from articles she first wrote for the Times, about Chinese immigrants in the restaurant business. Among these are the young man from Fuzhou, China, who spent four years incarcerated in Pennsylvania after washing up on a New York beach in June 1993 in an overloaded smuggling vessel, The Golden Venture. By the time Lee met him in 2006, he’d been out of prison nine years and owned a 150-seat Chinese restaurant in Ohio, where he was building a five-bedroom house for his wife and two children. When she asks if he’d risk his life on such a brutal journey again if he knew how it would turn out, he’s equivocal.

    Another Fuzhou family pursuing their “wok-fueled American dream” isn’t so successful. Their story bears similarities to the one told in Ha Jin’s recent novel, “A Free Life.” After years slaving in others’ restaurants, the couple manage to bring their three children over from China and buy a small restaurant in Hiawassee, Ga.

    Cultural and language barriers, plus a miserable, manipulative teenage daughter, lead a child welfare agency to put their children in foster care until a Good Samaritan from their church intervenes on their behalf.

    Readers are likely to increase their tips after reading about the plight of Chinese restaurant workers, who, lacking English and papers, are often “treated like farm animals or machines.”

    “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” offers a rich medley of flavors that would be more delicious had the chef exercised some restraint: A clearer chronology and narrative line would allow each ingredient to sing. As it stands, Lee’s concoction, although tasty, smacks at times of chop suey – that catchall dish that translates from Cantonese as “odds and ends.”

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