BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

"It ain't what you want, it's what you need."

Here's another example of why I love picking up books at the dollar store … the odds of my getting Jennifer 8. Lee's The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food in any other context would be highly unlikely, but running into it amid the slim pickings (and very slim pickings for non-fiction) on the dollar store shelf made it a decided “why not?” add-in to my cart a couple of months back. Having spent the first decade plus of my career in food publicity, I do tend to have “food books” on my radar – but not to the extent that I particularly go looking for them – so I'm happy when an entertaining one comes my way.

Ms. Lee's book (and, yes, her middle name is the number 8 … chosen to differentiate her from the other 10,000 “Jennifer Lee”s in the U.S., and reflecting Chinese numerology for good luck) is a delightful collection of "bits and pieces" (which appears to be the source meaning of “chop suey”) related to the expansion of Chinese food globally, and how fortune cookies play into that.

The entry point for the narrative was a Powerball lottery draw back in 2005 … when 110 people (vs. a statistical likelihood of a bit less than 4) all came up with second-place winning tickets, with nearly identical numbers (104 of the 110 played the same, non-winning, sixth number). The winners were from all over the country, so there was unlikely some sort of conspiracy to defraud the lottery … but, naturally, an investigation was launched. From the lottery's perspective, having all those second-place winners was worse than having a bunch of first-place winners, since the big prize would have been split between the winners, while the second-place prizes were flat-rate six-figure pay-outs. By this point, you've no doubt guessed what turned out to have caused this mass of people playing a particular set of numbers – they had all decided to play numbers printed on the paper slips in fortune cookies, and that particular day the numbers in the cookies were substantially right.

Lee was a reporter with the New York Times who frequently got assigned to Chinese-American cultural stories, and she got sent out on an epic road trip – visiting all the restaurants where winners had identified getting the fortune cookies bearing the winning numbers … visiting 42 states in all. One of the little factoids here that I found surprising is that there are more (primarily “mom & pop”) Chinese restaurants in the U.S. than there are McDonald’s, Burger King, and Kentucky Fried Chicken locations combined … they are pretty much everywhere, woven through society, but in many ways only barely part of society. Lee traces the migration from various areas in China to the U.S. in different eras, both in relation to the titular pastry and in general.

Some folks might find it surprising that the fortune cookie is not a “Chinese” thing. While it could be argued to be an “American thing”, the author's research eventually narrows down its origin to a particular Japanese “tea cake”, which used to come with Japanese writing on its “fortune”. This was brought over by Japanese immigrants in California, and had a small footprint of availability in Japanese settings there. The big change came with the Japanese internment in 1942. None of the Japanese-owned businesses continued in their original forms, with other Oriental groups taking over running them, or obtaining their resources. Among these were the machines for making the cookies, which suddenly were being produced with English copy, and being featured in Chinese restaurants.

Credit Lee with jumping the gap back to the pre-Internment Japanese origins of the fortune cookie, as there was a lot of confusion of who/what/when as far as the “originator” in the Chinese community, with various claimants, but very little hard evidence. While the fortune cookie question is the frame on which the book hangs, it is just one thread here. It also covers immigration, culture, the spread of recipes, and the function played by Chinese restaurants in the last century in the U.S.

Another “factoid” that I found of interest is that the reasonably ubiquitous delivery menu can be traced to a particular owner of a particular restaurant at a particular point in time. It amazes me that this model for getting food is as recent as it is (and, to be honest, I have a certain doubt about this being the start of delivery menus … as I was able to call and have subs delivered to my dorm room in college at about the same time), but Lee points to one place on Manhattan's upper west side where the owner decided that “If the customers didn't want to come to her, she would bring the food to them.” in November of 1976. The success that this one place was having soon exploded into nearly every Chinese (and other) restaurant adding phone ordered delivery to their business model. A related section later in the book discusses the dangers of being a food delivery person, with limited grasp of the language, in places like New York.

The look into the “underworld” of Chinese restaurants is fascinating … from the cities in China where everybody has left to come to America (and sent home money to build big empty mansions), to the employment agencies and bus companies that exist to get (typically undocumented) workers to restaurant jobs around the country, to how these restaurants change hands (most move family-to-family as it is much easier than opening a new place with English-requiring forms and inspectors involved), and how various recipes evolved and moved across the country (and world). As noted above “chop suey” translates to “bits and pieces” and moved from California to the east coast, while General Tso's Chicken arose out east, and eventually moved on west (with many variations of the name … Lee goes to China to find the original home of the General in question, and spins a number of stories off of that). Generally speaking, none of these “American” Chinese dishes have direct equivalents in actual Chinese cooking, and that the standard “American style” that we're familiar with here has become a cuisine of its own, with restaurants opening around the world offering those dishes.

A substantial side-story here was an idea that her editor at the Times came up with – determining “the best” Chinese restaurant in the world. Given the universality of “Chinese” restaurants around the planet, and the variability of style and influence, this was a huge challenge, but Lee visited candidates in Los Angeles, Lima, Paris, Singapore, London, Tokyo, Australia, San Francisco, Dubai, Seoul, Vancouver, Brazil, Mauritius, Mumbai, Jamaica, Rome, and New York, judging by a set of requirements to provide something of a baseline. The winner? A place located on the second floor of a suburban strip mall somewhere south of Vancouver, BC … go figure!

If I had a complaint about The Fortune Cookie Chronicles it's that it heads off in so many directions, and becomes more of a collection of divergent pieces about Chinese “stuff” (loosely related to food) than something with a solid story arc. This is all fascinating, mind you (she gets into things like comparing Chinese restaurants to open-source software vs. the fast food icons being the Microsofts, etc. ... and where the “classic” fortunes come from – it's not Confucius), but by the end I was feeling like it could have hung together better than it ultimately does.

However, this is a minor quibble held up against the mass of incredibly interesting info that's in here. The book is very accessible, and pretty much “has something for everybody” in it. This has been out for a while (since 2008), and seems to still be in print in the paperback edition. Since it got into the dollar store channel, there are copies out there for a penny from the on-line new/used guys, including “like new” copies of the hardcover. This book was a great read for me (being a long-time fan of Chinese places), and if you're interested in any of the assorted sub-themes here, you'll probably like it as well.

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Tags: book review
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