The Fortune Cookie Chronicles
by Jennifer 8. Lee
“Our benchmark for Americanness is apple pie. But ask yourself: How often do you eat apple pie? How often do you eat Chinese food?”
These words mark the close of Lee’s first chapter in her book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food.
I picked up this book one evening while browsing my local Brookline Booksmith. Drawn to its bright orange-red cover, I found myself chuckling at the chapter headings such as “Chapter 5: The Long March of General Tso,” and “Chapter 11: The Mystery of the Missing Chinese Deliveryman,” or “Chapter 12: The Soy Sauce Trade Dispute.” Three days later I had devoured the book, and am left smiling at its crunchy humor and insightful sweet aftertastes. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles offers one women’s perspective into the history and evolution of the fortune cookie. But more than that, Jennifer 8 Lee offers insights from her personal research on the global evolution and migration of the Chinese food phenomena.
So, where did the fortune cookie really come from? The familiar treat in American -Chinese restaurants is completely foreign in China. Did you know that the fortune cookie messages have to be less than 12 words long? Who writes these, and how did the messages grow to be a multi-million dollar business? Lee unwraps the fortune cookie from the inside out, answering these questions and more as she mixing her tale with historical artifacts, interviews, threads of personal stories, and newsworthy tidbits. As she notes, “The purpose of fortune cookies became startlingly clear to me then: this is Western wisdom recycled for an American audience. The Chinese are just the middlemen.”
Lee uses the fortune cookie to launch into all aspects of the global Chinese food industry. An expert on anything and everything related to Chinese food, Lee journeys across continents gathering stories from restaurant owners, business managers, Chinese immigrants, and even delivery-boys. Her book represents a compilation of these stories, interspersed with her own personal Chinese upbringing.
Read this book to find out why one made-up dish, “Chop Suey,” allowed the take over of Chinese food in America. Learn about Misa Cheng, the NYC native responsible for the beloved concept of Chinese take-out and delivery. Discover how to determine real soy sauce from fake soy sauce, and the global dispute on its exact definition. Find out Lee’s verdict as she samples the world, searching for the best Chinese restaurant on planet Earth.
Overall, I loved this book. Full of interesting stories and fresh perspectives, I found myself grinning on the subway as I turned page after page. It is a witty read, leaving the reader fully satiated. I know I will never eat Chinese food the same.