Previous Entry | Next Entry

Book Review: Fortune Cookie Chronicles


[where did this post go? I thought it got posted last night, but here it is in the unsaved cache. Fortunately!]

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is a breezy read through the world of American Chinese food. The main takeaway (sorry) is how the American Chinese food experience is so... actually... American. She examines nearly every facet you might imagine, and many I have never considered (those awful "soy sauce" packets without any soy at all: where do they get made?)

In the end, I was entertained, though I skimmed here and there. Will this become a cinema verité documentary? Maybe. Should you read this? Maybe.

So, what did I learn?

General Tso is a real figure from history. In China, he was a General known for his military prowess, a sort of William Tecumseh Sherman of Hunan Province. However, in China nobody eats his chicken. The most famous recipes from the part of the province he comes from are actually with dog meat.

Ms. Lee follows the exodus of workers illegally leaving Fuzhou, a region in southeastern China in the province of Fujian; which she says for the past two decades has been the source of the vast majority of Chinese restaurant workers in the US. She follows one man's travels over-land, on a barely sea-worthy ship, to the shores of New York City and then to jail for a number of years, then eventually freedom in the US. She spends a while discussing restaurant workers, how they have made new lives in big cities (the impression she gave was what a large fraction start in New York City), and some of them have fanned out to settle across the country, buying restaurants in tiny towns and trying to make a go of it.

And in the process she more or less explains how it came to pass that there are 43,000 Chinese restaurants in the US; more than McDonald's, Burger Kings, and KFCs combined.

She has an obsession with fortune cookies. That obsession led her to visits to San Francisco, China, Japan, and back to her back yard in New York City, explaining the history of who currently writes the fortunes, who invented the style of cookie (they were Japanese) and how they became a so-called Chinese tradition. She even gets into the history of the fortunes, visiting the Japanese shrine which originally folded a fortune into a cookie.

She might have the best job in the world, given her interests. The New York Times has flown her world-wide to produce these stories; she even gets a chapter out of "what is the best Chinese restaurant in the world?" Which involved yet still more travel, to try world-wide Chinese restaurants which are neither traditional Chinese nor cheap Americana. I will give her credit for determining criteria for choosing the best, not an easy task, but I don't feel enlightened from the reading of the experience.

She visits "the lost Chinese Jews of Kaifeng," a destination during the Jewish diaspora, and site of a synagogue from 1163 until the 1860s. There are a small number of Jews still living there. She asks the oldest living resident of the old epicenter of Jewish life in Kaifang why American Jews like Chinese food so much. "With a glint in her eye, she slapped the wooden table. She knew. I leaned in. This was the insight for which I had travelled thousands of miles, walked along a highway at midnight, and scoured alleyways. Her Buddhist koan-like response was profound in its simplicity: 'Because Chinese food tastes good.'"

The most interesting chapter for me was the history of the delivery restaurant in New York City. She says before the 80s, there were basically no delivery restaurants, period. Anywhere. One enterprising Chinese restaurant figured out the formula, and within a few years, the entire restaurant culture had changed. (The last time I was in Manhattan, I had a diner deliver to my hotel. Which, in the end, I should thank that Chinese restaurant for. Even if in the process, innumerable apartment owners may have been thoroughly teed off by sheaves and stacks of restaurant menus left in their lobby...)

This is not a cohesive review, for which I am sorry. But I have an excuse: melted_snowball has taken my copy of the book. Perhaps I will take it back to revise the review later.

Tags:


Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
zalena
Apr. 1st, 2010 02:51 am (UTC)
Yep... you pretty much cover it... except you don't mention anything about fortune cookies being Japanese.

I skimmed very little of the book (but did not like the chapter on 'best Chinese restaurant in the world'... I thought it was a stretch).

What really struck me about it was the immigration experience and the thorough Americanness of the food... which is something I already knew... but in a different way than what I assumed. Actually, I felt really patriotic reading the book and I will never eat (American) Chinese food the same way, again.

Also: isn't it amazing that its a diaspora more numerous than fast food, independently owned, and yet, still somehow homogenous. Amazing!
da_lj
Apr. 3rd, 2010 03:13 pm (UTC)
except you don't mention anything about fortune cookies being Japanese.

*eyebrow* I promise I didn't add this afterward!... :)

"invented the style of cookie (they were Japanese) and how they became a so-called Chinese tradition. She even gets into the history of the fortunes, visiting the Japanese shrine which originally folded a fortune into a cookie."

But fr srs: I wish I had an obsession my work would send me around the world to explore!

I felt really patriotic reading the book and I will never eat (American) Chinese food the same way, again.

I'm still figuring out what I felt about this aspect; one part is amazement at how all fits together (the economics, the changing American palette, pride in the immigrant experience in the US). Another is wondering about similarities or differences in the experience here in Canada. Chinese food here is very similar to the US, but I also see a lot of restaurants where primary (or only) signage is in Chinese- is the story less about the melting pot and more about the mosaic?...

I suppose I could get off my lazy butt and make friends with the Chinese restaurant-owners a few blocks away; they are certainly friendly and might be willing to satisfy my curiosity.

...But then I'd have to write a book about it, and I sure don't have time for that now! :)

diaspora more numerous than fast food, independently owned, and yet, still somehow homogenous.

I do wonder about her points about "open-source food": the networks of communication (and travel) meaning the restaurateurs cooperate and share the successful strategies, making for just as much intelligence as the top-down franchises... It makes sense, but I want to see more research into this, as well!

There's one more part to the story that d. and I have wondered about that's also surprising: Chinese restaurants are also (universally?) segregated by price in North America. Why is Chinese food so much cheaper than Italian, and often cheaper than Indian?...


Edited at 2010-04-03 03:14 pm (UTC)
zalena
Apr. 3rd, 2010 03:20 pm (UTC)
Okay, I'll admit to sloppy reading. How could I have missed it?

Very interested in the open-source food aspect, too. I wonder if Ms. Jennifer 8. Lee could answer the price-point question?
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

Profile

da_lj
Daniel Allen
Website

Page Summary

Latest Month

August 2013
S M T W T F S
    123
45678910
11121314151617
18192021222324
25262728293031
Powered by LiveJournal.com
Designed by Tiffany Chow