The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food - 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?

I went to college with Jennifer 8. Lee, who is now a reporter for the New York Times and apparently has an obsession with Chinese food. This book starts with the story of an improbable multiple-winner Powerball lottery sparked by the "lucky numbers" printed on fortune cookies. Lee tracked followed the trail of winners to various Chinese restaurants around the country and eventually back to the source of those particular fortunes.

On the way, she delves into the history of Chinese food, particularly "American Chinese food," the sort served in countless Chinese restaurants across the country. She traces the history of the fortune cookie (were they really Japanese in origin?), tracks down the family of General Tso, and discovers the man who might possibly have invented "chop suey." She ponders the link between Jews and Chinese food, tells the sordid tale of the human smuggling that supplies Chinese restaurant workers, and gives me a good reason never to buy La Choy soy sauce (which contains no actual soy). She posits the reason why Chinese restaurants, though decentralized, still seem to serve the same thing all over the country; and she tracks down the greatest Chinese restaurant in the world.

It's an ambitious book and at some points it doesn't entirely tie together. Sure, it's fascinating that more Chinese restaurant workers get hitched on Thanksgiving (the only day they have off) than any other day of the year, but does it really tie in to the story of a missing Chinese deliveryman? A few times, Lee writes about things that I feel almost certain she's mentioned before. This may be because most of the chapters could serve as stand-alone articles, usually with the trail of the fortune cookie tying them together, and these unifying strands were tightened afterwards.

Still, it's a wonderful book filled with lots of conversation fodder. I found the poignant chapters about Chinese restaurant workers particularly eye-opening, and the book provides some history lessons by way of cuisine. It may not change what you eat, but it will certainly give you food for thought the next time you head to the China Buffet.

You can get more information about Lee and her book at her website,

Fed to jonathan's brain | May 01, 2008 | Comments (0)


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