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The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Foodby Jennifer 8. Lee
Synopses & Reviews
There are more Chinese restaurants in America than McDonald's, Burger Kings, and Wendy's combined. Egg rolls are as American as apple pie, and for New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee, the story of the Chinese-American experience can be told through the lens of the food.
The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is for anyone who has ever wondered who General Tso was and why his chicken is so famous; why all Chinese restaurants use the same trapezoidal delivery cartons; and who invented the fortune cookie. Jennifer 8 Lee narrates her search for the world's best Chinese restaurant with a mix of in-depth research and entertaining personal anecdotes.
She describes the journey of immigrant restaurant workers who travel from China to America and their quest for a better life. She exposes the underbelly of businesses that produce Dim Sum, Lo Mein, and that mysterious sauce you dip steamed dumplings into. She explains the Jewish affinity for Chinese food through the remarkable story of the Great Kosher Duck Scandal of Atlanta.
And then, there are the fortune cookies, a source of prophecy and wisdom, and the key to the central mystery in Jennifer 8. Lee's delightful and sumptuous quest.
"Readers will take an unexpected and entertaining journey — through culinary, social and cultural history — in this delightful first book on the origins of the customary after-Chinese-dinner treat by New York Times reporter Lee. When a large number of Powerball winners in a 2005 drawing revealed that mass-printed paper fortunes were to blame, the author (whose middle initial is Chinese for 'prosperity') went in search of the backstory. She tracked the winners down to Chinese restaurants all over America, and the paper slips the fortunes are written on back to a Brooklyn company. This travellike narrative serves as the spine of her cultural history — not a book on Chinese cuisine, but the Chinese food of take-out-and-delivery — and permits her to frequently but safely wander off into various tangents related to the cookie. There are satisfying minihistories on the relationship between Jews and Chinese food and a biography of the real General Tso, but Lee also pries open factoids and tidbits of American culture that eventually touch on large social and cultural subjects such as identity, immigration and nutrition. Copious research backs her many lively anecdotes, and being American-born Chinese yet willing to scrutinize herself as much as her objectives, she wins the reader over. Like the numbers on those lottery fortunes, the book's a winner." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"When the Chinese greet their friends, it's rarely with a simple 'hello' or 'how are you?' Instead, their first words are: 'Ni chi fan le ma?' or, 'Have you eaten yet?' In Chinese culture, food doesn't exist merely for physical nourishment; it's fundamental to social interactions and relationships. In other words, food is necessary for the body and for the soul. It's a maxim that... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Jennifer 8. Lee, author of 'The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,' knows well. (Her middle 'number,' by the way, connotes prosperity to the Chinese.) 'The vocabulary words that Chinese-American kids ... know best,' she writes, 'are almost always related to food.' In her engaging first book, Lee, an American born to Chinese immigrant parents, puts that food-related vocabulary to good use by embarking on a three-year journey across six continents, 23 countries and 42 states to discover how and why Chinese cuisine became ubiquitous. After all, as Lee notes, 'There are some forty thousand Chinese restaurants in the United States — more than the number of McDonald's, Burger Kings, and KFCs combined.' Lee travels wide and digs deep to unearth the answers to several burning questions: Where do fortune cookies come from? (Originally from Japan.) What is chop suey? (A sweet, saucy mishmash of vegetables and meat designed to appeal to American palates.) And why is Chinese food the chosen food of the chosen people? (It is relatively easy to make kosher; Manhattan's traditionally Jewish Lower East Side is adjacent to Chinatown; and, well, Chinese food tastes good.) Lee's day job as a reporter at the New York Times serves her well; she's clearly done some meticulous homework. She traverses the country to hunt down dozens of winners of a 2005 Powerball lottery, each of whom chose the lucky number from a fortune cookie. She finds a village outside Kyoto, Japan, where bakeries have been making fortune cookies since the 19th century. She even finds the New York woman responsible for the proliferation of restaurant menus in apartment lobbies, comparing her marketing efforts to e-mail spam. Reading Lee's book is almost like watching a documentary travelogue. From all-you-can-eat buffets in Kansas to the small southern Chinese village of Jietoupu, where she tracks down descendants of General Tso (who, natch, have never heard of, seen or tasted their forefather's infamous chicken dish), the author takes readers by the hand and brings them on her adventure. You can picture yourself standing next to Lee as she visits a San Francisco fortune cookie company, where she observes that 'day after day, two elderly Chinese women fold hot fortune cookie wafers, their fingertips toughened by years of sticky heat. They each sit next to a fortune cookie machine, and the scene is strictly Willy Wonka meets Dickens: spigots squirt out circles of batter, which are then whisked on a conveyor belt into a dark tunnel lit by blue gas flames.' Where Lee really shines, though, is in describing the people who have cooked, served and delivered America's favorite cuisine. 'The Fortune Cookie Chronicles' isn't just about the popularization of Chinese food; it's also a story of Chinese immigrants in America. Lee not only traces the history of 19th-century Chinese railroad workers and what they ate and cooked, she also tells the tale of the Golden Venture, a ship full of 286 illegal immigrants that ran aground in Queens, N.Y., in 1993. Most of the immigrants were restaurant workers from Fujian province, looking for a better life in America, only to find red tape and prison awaiting them. 'There is a fairly good chance that the Chinese restaurant worker who cooked your roast pork fried rice, or the woman who took your order on the phone, or the deliveryman who showed up at your door paid tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of doing so.' Lee's stories of immigrant survival and ingenuity are so moving that it seems like nitpicking to complain about the book's biggest weakness: The subtitle, 'Adventures in the World of Chinese Food,' is misleading. 'The Fortune Cookie Chronicles' is not really about the world of Chinese food but rather is an anthropological study of its popularization in the United States. It's true that Lee describes her travels from Dubai to Paris to find the greatest Chinese restaurant in the world. But the chapter simply reads like a laundry list of Great Meals I Have Eaten and does little except inspire frequent-flier-mileage envy and demonstrate that good Chinese food can be found anywhere. The topic of the 'glocalization' — global localization — of Chinese food, which Lee only touches upon, could easily fill the pages of another book. Indeed, finishing 'The Fortune Cookie Chronicles' was like polishing off a good Chinese meal. I was nourished and satisfied, but an hour later I was hungry for more." Reviewed by Christine Y. Chen, a contributing writer at Foreign Policy magazine, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Thanks to Lee's journalistic chops, the text moves along energetically even in its more expository sections. Tasty morsels delivered quickly and reliably." Kirkus Reviews
"Those of us who eat Chinese food are lucky to have Jennifer Lee as a guide to the modern global migrations and individual ingenuity that have made it the world's favorite cuisine. In The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, she offers many expertly told stories in one: a footloose and witty travelogue, a fascinating piece of historical reportage, and a quiet but moving memoir of the immigrant experience. Lee pursues her parallel investigations with a hearty appetite for economic curiosities, little patience for myth, and above all an empathy for the people who make, prepare, and deliver the food we eat." Sasha Issenberg, author of The Sushi Economy
"Jennifer 8. Lee has cracked the world of Chinese restaurants like a fortune cookie. Her book is an addictive dim-sum of fact, fun, quirkiness and pathos. It's Anthony Bourdain meets Calvin Trillin. Lee is the kind of reporter I can only dream of being: committed, compassionate, resourceful, and savvy. I devoured this book in two nights (in bed), and suggest you do the same." Mary Roach, author of Stiff and Spook
New York Times reporter Lee traces the history of the Chinese-American experience through the lens of Chinese food restaurants in America. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles speaks to the immigrant experience as a whole, and the way it has shaped this country.
Readers take an unexpected and entertaining journey through culinary, social, and cultural history in this delightful first book on the origins of the customary after-Chinese-dinner treat by "New York Times" reporter Lee.
About the Author
Jennifer 8. Lee, the daughter of Chinese immigrants and a fluent speaker of Mandarin Chinese herself, grew up eating her mother's authentic Chinese food in her family's New York City kitchen before graduating from Harvard in 1999 with a degree in Applied Mathematics and economics and studying at Beijing University. At the age of 24, she was hired by the New York Times, where she is a metro reporter and has written a variety of stories on culture, poverty, and technology.
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