Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Book Review: The Fortune Cookie Chronicles [2008]

Taking a break from my usual fictional fare, I picked up Jennifer 8. Lee's The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. Lee frames the story around the curious 2005 Powerball event in which over 100 people won Powerball prizes based on their use of numbers from a Chinese restaurant's fortune cookie. I didn't say Chinese fortune cookie here because one of the things Lee discovers on her global trek to discover the secrets of Chinese food is that fortune cookies were invented by the Japanese. The book is full of similar (potentially useful) trivia, such as the fact that Chinese food is served on all seven continents, including Antarctica, or that American produced soy sauce doesn't actually contain soy. Although the book sometimes feels more like a series of loosely connected essays or articles, peppered with anecdotes (Lee is a New York Times reporter) on the same subject, she does make a convincing case for American Chinese food as a distinctive cuisine as uniform and, well, American as McDonald's (which Chinese restaurant franchises outnumber two to one). The sheer amount of Lee's research and care becomes apparent upon viewing her extensive notes and bibliography. It is clear that the project was something more than a standard food "gimmick" book for her, instead it is a meditation on what it means to be Chinese and American, and to sit at the crossroads of these cultures:
I'd never really grasped the widespread fascination with genealogy in America, since I knew exactly when my family showed up in the States. But this journey had become my own genealogical search: an investigation into how Chinese immigrants, like Chinese food, have embedded themselves in places around the world. They have adopted Italian first names, Thai last names, and, in Jamaica, Roman Catholicism (the church usually ran the best schools) . . . As I moved from culture to culture, I met Chinese people who listened to reggaeton and danced salsa in Peru, played guitar in reggae bands in Jamaica, and spoke Hindi in India. Yet in some sense, despite generations in other countries, we acknowledged each other as Chinese--even when we spoke no common languages.

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is a frequently amusing, always informative, thoughtful meditation on our food culture.

Grade: A-

ETA: Jennifer 8. Lee is blogging here.

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