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The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, by Jennifer 8. Lee


Fat Guy
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Jennifer 8. Lee (the middle initial 8 is on account of that being a lucky number in Chinese culture), a reporter for the New York Times, has got to be one of the most tireless researchers in the history of the Western world. Or the Eastern world. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Lee has just published her first book, "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food," which was just released this past week and is unquestionably a tour-de-force of fact-finding and presentation.

I was keenly interested in getting a copy of the book for a few reasons. First, because I've recently finished writing a book on Asian restaurants that has a sizable chapter on Chinese restaurants. Second, because I've enjoyed several of her New York Times pieces, particularly a recent one on the history of the fortune cookie (short version: it's Japanese). And finally, because she reminds me of a number of Asian-American kids I admired in high school: brilliant, articulate, yet driven in a way I just can't compete with. (We didn't go to the same school -- she went to Hunter and I went to Stuyvesant -- but the places have a lot of cultural overlap. She's also maybe six years younger than I am but I count her in my generation.)

The book isn't easy to summarize. The scope is quite broad not just factually but also stylistically. The way it's presented, it begins with the story of the Powerball lottery (true story) where the second-place winning numbers matched those on a fortune cookie. As a result, an unprecedented number of people -- who had received that fortune in cookies distributed all over the country and played the numbers -- won the second prize, costing Powerball about $20 million in unanticipated payouts. She uses this framework to launch a journey of discovery. She visits the various restaurants across America where the winning fortune cookies originated. She visits Chinese restaurants and population centers all over the world, and in the process learns not just about fortune cookies, not just about Chinese food and culture, but also about herself.

The most remarkable aspect of the book is that, as I mentioned already, the research is breathtakingly deep. She spent three years working on the book, seemingly for 48 hours a day. It's not clear to me how any human being could have done all that research, written this book, and held down a job as a New York Times reporter.

To me Lee is at her best when doing one of two things: First, her research and reporting on Chinese immigrant culture -- from tales of human smuggling to nuanced portraits of immigrant families -- is definitive. In that regard, the organizing principle of restaurants is just a way to get into the real subject. Second, when she pauses to reflect and shifts out of the reporting voice, she reveals a great deal of understanding of the immigrant experience and its larger cultural ramifications.

She's at her worst when talking about food. For example, in one chapter she goes on a worldwide search for the greatest Chinese restaurant. She covers a lot of ground, visits a list of restaurants that's basically the Chinese equivalent of visiting every Michelin-three-star French restaurant in the world, and has little interesting to say about any of them. Luckily, most of the book isn't really about food. It's about culture, and the food is secondary.

There are also some inconsistencies. For example, at one point Lee gives an impassioned speech against the concept of "authenticity." And she's right: the authenticity myth is something that deserves to be debunked whenever possible. (I devoted the last section of my Asian-restaurants book to that.) But throughout the rest of the book, she uncritically tosses about the term "authenticity" in exactly the way she criticizes in that speech. The book is also uneven throughout. Its scope is an asset but also a liability. Lee is a strong writer but not strong enough to pull this work together in a fully satisfactory manner. Like a television series interrupted by the writers' strike, it rushes towards its first concluding chapter then drags towards yet another. And it doesn't help that the organizing principle -- the search for the sources of the Powerball fortune cookies -- is a weak one. She didn't need that gimmick to make the book interesting. She and her research are interesting in and of themselves. Attempts to force the issue take away from that.

In the end, "Fortune Cookie Chronicles" is a very good book and one well worth reading. But sometimes less is more.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I just finished it. And two hours later I wanted to read again! :)

Actually, I mostly liked it. The topic of Jews and Chinese food is one that's close to my heart. I've read Safe Treyf, and other writings on the topic, but I hadn't heard of the great kosher duck scandal.

It was mostly a good history of Chinese restaurants. I liked her visit to General Tso's relatives, and how there is no soy in the little packets of soy sauce. The fortune cookie bit went on too long though.

I let Jsmeeker tell me where to eat in Vegas.

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  • 6 months later...

Just finished this last night. I have to agree with the two of you on both her strengths and weaknesses. Like Fatguy, I really agreed with her conclusions about 'authenticity'. I also liked her apparent appreciation for ethnic-American styles of cooking and how it is really a separate food from what people actually eat in the countries that have inspired them - different, but often very good, so good that they count as comfort food for Americans, especially those living abroad where that style isn't available.

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  • 1 year later...

I just got back from a banquet where Jennifer 8 Lee, the author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, was the featured speaker. She was hilarious. I had read her book last summer and enjoyed it. Her talk included a video of puzzled people in China trying to figure out what you do with a fortune cookie. Has anyone here read the book? What did you think?

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I've wanted to read the book for a few years now, but just haven't gotten around to it. I read her blog posts about it, and also saw her TED video (she was a pretty good speaker, though she shifts around a bit too much). A couple of years ago, I had thought to visit some of the "fortune cookie" makers in Fushimi when Peter Green and I went to Fushimi Inari Shriine, but when I saw the cotton candy, I plum forgot about it.

Here's another discussion about the book.

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I thoroughly enjoyed the book when I read it last year. What I found at least as interesting as pure food history as her fortune cooking quest was the discussion of the origins of General Tsao's Chicken.

But what was most enlightening was Lee's analysis of the development of Chinese restaurants in America, their spread throughout the land and their role within the immigrant community. This is a required read for anyone who purports to be interested in the intersection of food and cultures.

Bob Libkind aka "rlibkind"

Robert's Market Report

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  • 6 months later...

I've wanted to read the book for a few years now, but just haven't gotten around to it. I read her blog posts about it, and also saw her TED video (she was a pretty good speaker, though she shifts around a bit too much). A couple of years ago, I had thought to visit some of the "fortune cookie" makers in Fushimi when Peter Green and I went to Fushimi Inari Shriine, but when I saw the cotton candy, I plum forgot about it.

Here's another discussion about the book.

Watched the TED and then read the book as well..But some how felt it was overwrought :huh:

Edited by anm (log)
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  • 2 months later...

I think Steven ("Fat Guy") pretty much hit the nail on the head. FWIW, I found the book pretty informative, entertaining, touching and absorbing. As an Asian immigrant more fortunate than many of those who end up slaving away in the various North American Chinatowns, what stuck in my mind more than a year after reading the book was Ms. Lee's descriptions of the North American Chinese restaurant reality (from the cheap cross-country bus rides to the newspaper devoted to that world). I agree it's a worthy, and worthwhile read, especially for eGulleters interested in foodways and cultures.

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