Phoebe's Reviews > The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8. Lee
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's review
Mar 09, 12

bookshelves: food, non-fiction, history
Read from February 21 to 22, 2012

I love food histories. My favorite is probably Why We Eat What We Eat: How Columbus Changed the Way the World Eats by Raymond Sokolov, which examines how the discovery of the New World radically changed cuisine. Like Sokolov's great volume, Jennifer 8 Lee's The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is a detailed examination of how we arrived in our current culinary landscape.

Lee begins with a simple question: where did fortune cookies originate, and can they really be called Chinese? She returns to this central question again and again as she examines the social history of Chinese food in America, from the chop suey explosion at the turn of the century to a similar food fad when General Tso's chicken was embraced in the late '80s. The contemporaneity of that dish, particularly, surprised me--there's something about the landscape of food that often seems immutable, resistant to trends like other, more capricious forces like those of fashion or education or politics.

Of course, that's not the case, and Lee manages to argue quite effectively about the fundamentally American nature of what we know as Chinese food. In The Fortune Cookie Chronicles we learn not only about the Japanese-American genesis of fortune cookies, but also of the Jewish manufacture of those little soy sauce packets that you find at the bottom of your take-out, about the New Jersey company that once sold "Chinese food cartons" for the packaging of ice cream, of how General Tso himself is seen, not as an innovator of chicken in China, but rather as, you know, a military general. But Lee doesn't only give us a fun, chewy food history here. She also delves deeper into the human side of the story. You learn about the immigration struggles of Chinese food service workers, and what it takes to start a Chinese restaurant (and how one family who endeavors to do just that manages to nearly implode). You also learn biographical touches about Jennifer 8 Lee herself. It's well handled--she never eclipses the story she's trying to tell--and lends an interesting human side to the narrative.

A few chapters are tiresome, particularly the long chapter about the world's best Chinese restaurant, which goes on entirely too long and feels plucked from a magazine and hardly edited. But overall, this is a fascinating, eye-opening history of a truly American phenomena. I dare you to read it and not order take-out afterwards.
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Reading Progress

02/21/2012 page 75

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Judy (new) - added it

Judy It really amazed me when I moved from Taiwan to Canada how the Chinese food here consisted of some dishes I've never seen back home. This sounds like an interesting read.

Phoebe Judy wrote: "It really amazed me when I moved from Taiwan to Canada how the Chinese food here consisted of some dishes I've never seen back home. This sounds like an interesting read."

It's very interesting! She covers geographic differences in Chinese food as well--avoids a totally US-centric focus but still manages to show how "Chinese food" as it's commonly known in North America is a uniquely American invention.

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