Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Pick of the Week--The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8 Lee

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is another one of those great book that I read a bit ago and have been impatiently waiting for its release--and now it's here! Here's a review written by Debra Ginsberg for Shelf Awareness (my favorite daily on the book trade) that's much better written than anything I can do:

"Every so often, an obsession can lead to a big payoff. This is certainly true of debut author Jennifer 8. Lee, a New York Times reporter and an "ABC" (American-born Chinese), whose fascination with fortune cookies led her to write this engaging and informative cultural history of Chinese restaurant food in the U.S. Lee (whose middle initial signifies "prosperity" in Chinese) began her research in 2005, when an unusually large group of Powerball winners were revealed to have gotten their lucky numbers from fortune cookies that they'd received in Chinese restaurants across the country. Finding a quirky appeal in the phenomenon, Lee decided to trace fortune cookies back to their origin and soon found herself on a quest that encompassed Chinese restaurants in 42 states and several countries.

Although the food itself is central, Lee trains her focus on the unusual blend of culture, history and custom that make up American Chinese restaurants, individually owned eateries that outnumber McDonald's, Burger King and KFC combined in the U.S. Unfolding her journey much like a Chinese menu, Lee takes several lively and enlightening sidetracks as she follows the fortune cookie trail. For example, she credits the introduction of chop suey, a dish that did not exist in China, as the beginning of American enthusiasm for this "exotic" cuisine and researches the evolution of Chinese take-out. In a similar vein, she offers a short biography of General Tso whose eponymous chicken dish is unknown in his native land and deconstructs the elements of soy sauce at the world's largest producer. In a chapter titled "Why Chow Mein is the Chosen Food of the Chosen People," Lee examines the close relationship between Jews and Chinese food, including a quick review of Jewish dietary laws and a very funny anecdote involving kosher ducks. In more serious but no less spirited sections, Lee examines questions of national identity and the immigrant experience as seen through the eyes of several Chinese restaurant workers and journeys across six continents looking for the best Chinese restaurant in the world.

Ultimately she arrives again at the fortune cookie (not, as it turns out, a Chinese invention) and realizes that her search for the meaning within it has led to a greater understanding of her own culturally mixed identity. Both witty and charming, Lee's book is also surprisingly wise--every bit the treat one finds at the bottom of those familiar take-out containers."
As for me, I really enjoyed how Ms. Lee moved between humor and serious reporting. I love when I learn about the complexities of those things around me of which I never take more than cursory notice and am entertained at the same time. My favorites were the chapters on how Chinese restaurants are bought and sold through a cross-country network run from the small Chinatown of New York City and, of course, the previously mentioned look at the close relationship between Jews and Chinese food (I can't imagine a Christmas without egg rolls!)

One final note and warning: I read this book about a month ago and have had consistent cravings for Chinese food ever since. Honestly, it's starting to annoy my friends who would prefer Thai or Indian. Sorry guys.

No comments: