The premise of the book, which delves mostly into Chinese American popular culture, is brilliant and proof that truth is stranger than fiction. Jennifer Lee began researching fortune cookies after 110 people won the 100,000 dollar second prize in the Powerball lottery in 2005 – many of them by picking numbers that had been printed on the little slip of paper in their fortune cookies. This sent her sleuthing to the restaurants that gave out the fortune cookies, the factories that made them and ultimately to their origins which is actually in Japan.
Like Lee, I also have an obsession with Americanized Chinese food, and more particularly with a distinctive regional variation in the town where I grew up, so I read her descriptions of Crab Rangoon, Szechwan Alligator and Chow Mein sandwiches with great relish (and slight horror in the case of the Chow Mein sandwich).
But The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is about more than just Fortune Cookies, because as Lee followed those cookies down the rabbit hole, it led her to write a book that is a buffet of stories about the globalization of Chinese food-particularly American-style Chinese food and the people who make it.
Lee also writes about the genesis of Chop Suey in a chapter called “The Biggest Culinary Joke played on one Culture by Another”. Other chapters deal with Soy Sauce packets, the trapezoidal take-away cartons with the wire handles and General Tso’s Chicken- a dish, that for all intents and purposes, exists nowhere in China.
What’s really refreshing about Lee’s approach to this food, is that she makes no judgments of authenticity. She says “Authenticity is a concept that food snobs propagate, not one that reflects how people really cook and eat on a daily basis”. As a Chinese American, the Americanized versions ARE authentic to her. When she finally does track down General Tso’s chicken in Taiwan, it’s nothing like the dish to which she’s become accustomed in the U.S.
The author is at her most compelling, though, in chapters when she tells the stories of the Chinese immigrants who have helped make Chinese food ubiquitous in the United States. They’ve left homes and families for a strange new place with hopes of a better life-some nearly lose their lives on the voyage and wind up in immigrant detention centers, families fall apart under the stress of running a restaurant, and others face unimaginable danger making deliveries; sometimes they’re beaten and robbed-a few even lose their lives.
My only complaint about these immigrant tales is that Lee seems to fixate on the doom and gloom. In one chapter called “The Mystery of the Missing Chinese Delivery Man,” she writes: “Death is only the lowest point in what is almost universally the miserable existence of a Chinese Restaurant Worker.” It almost makes Kafka sound cheerful. Certainly there are plenty of Chinese who have immigrated and made fortunes working their way up through the massive Chinese restaurant industry or at least had jobs in Chinese restaurants before finding success in other businesses.
The Fortune Cookie Chronicles also has some editing errors and some needless repetition in places, and I think the author at times tries too hard to be profound or poignant. On a tour of a factory that makes take-out cartons, she laments the piles of rejected cartons saying “I understood why their loss was so unsettling: these boxes were stillborn-purposeless”. A statement like that is a bit over-the-top considering the plight of immigrants she’d written about a few pages before.
Initially, I felt Lee had dropped the ball by ignoring Fortune Cookies after her first two or three chapters, but when they re-appeared in the middle an again at the end of the book, I was actually a little disappointed to be returning to that topic. It turned out I’d had my fill of them earlier in the book and I found stories of other food and people much more satisfying when all was said and done.
Like many culinary works of literature, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles uses food as a metaphor. This book is also the author’s search for her own identity as a second generation Chinese American. Everywhere she goes, Jennifer Lee is recognized as being Chinese, but she is also distinctly American-just like the fortune cookies that launched her journey of culinary-and ultimately personal-discovery.
Despite a few minor shortcomings, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is a delightful book. It’s a pretty quick read, even though it’s almost three-hundred pages long. Not only is the book sprinkled with interesting trivia that you can use later to impress your friends, you’ll likely walk away with a much better understanding of the food served at your favorite local Chinese restaurant. More importantly, the next time you go, this book may make you look the people who work there in the eye, and for the first time really appreciate everything they’ve done to keep you well fed.
*This review is adapted from one I did on the Gastronaut program on Radio Adelaide.