Jennifer 8. Lee, The Fortune Cookie Chronicle: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. Twelve publishers, 2008.
I am drawn to books that explore the big issues of globalization through study of the structures of everyday life, so how could I resist this book? Jennifer 8. Lee is a metro reporter for the New York Times with a degree in economics from Harvard and a pretty active imagination. Her Chinese immigrant parents gave her the middle name 8 (eight) because that number is associated with prosperity in China. Her book tells a number of stories that are as interesting and improbable as, well, as her own story seems to be and that are not always associated with prosperity. Globalization is like that and so, apparently, is the Chinese food business.
Some of the stories are just interesting on their own. Who invented the Chinese takeout menu? How did the fortune cookie, apparently invented by Japanese bakers in California, end up as the nearly universal Chinese restaurant treat (and the source of a suspicious lottery numbers)? What is the best Chinese restaurant in the world – an audacious question that could not be answered empirically in a thousand lifetimes? (But, interestingly, I have actually eaten at Lee’s chosen winner and I can’t really disagree with her verdict.)
Lee travels to China to try to find the origin of General Tso’s chicken, a concoction that no chef in China would willingly produce. And, in the Great Kosher Duck Scandal, she examines the intersection of two sub-cultures, Jews and Chinese. The history of Chop Suey, “the biggest culinary joke played by one culture by another,” provides an opportunity for Lee to examine the history of Chinese immigrants (and anti-Chinese attitudes) in America. Good stuff.
For me, however, the most memorable story is about the Chinese restaurant economy here in the U.S., a sophisticated communication and transportation network that connects Chinese restaurants and immigrant workers across the country and the active market that results in the restaurants themselves. Here is a whole world that most of us would never know about but for this interesting book.
Read this book and you'll never look at a Chinese restaurant, menu or dish the same way again.