Review: “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” by Jennifer 8. Lee

What most Americans would recognize as “Chinese food” is far more likely to be Chinese-American, than anything truly Chinese. That said, it may seem surprising that there’s no chop suey or General Tso’s chicken in China, at least not as we know them. The staunch food-snob might label these Americanized dishes as a bastardization of the original form, although I feel that “bastardization” is much too strong of a term. Okay, if the food is served from a steam-table, then it probably is a bastardization. But whether it’s a buffet set-up or not, mom-and-pop Chinese restaurants outnumber McDonald’s franchises by two to one in this country, and for me, Chinese-American cookery falls under the jurisdiction of “comfort food,” rendering the notion of “authenticity” a totally moot point (the craving for “authenticity” is cerebral, while the craving for “comfort” is much more primal — the primal craving will always win out).

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Authored by Jennifer 8. Lee, “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” reveals the murky origins of Chinese-American cuisine, as viewed through the puzzling history of the fortune cookie itself. Granted, I spent most of 2010 fixated on eating local Asian cuisine, but for me, Lee’s book represents one of the most compelling food histories that I’ve read this year, hands down. The origins and the evolution of Chinese-American cookery is inextricably tied to politics, war, and some of America’s darkest moments, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Japanese internment camps of World War II. Of course, in the case of America’s  Chinese food, the politics of culture transcends American shores, and China’s own political machine has created a lasting ripple effect on America’s Chinese restaurants, even today.

In her book, Lee unravels the history of Chinese-American cuisine with considerable research and legwork, and for me, “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” is a must-read for anyone who is interested in the politics and the culture of food. As it turns out, fortune cookies finds their roots in Japan (as tsujiura senbei), but they only first became a cultural phenomenon in California during World War II, then spreading eastward across America within a few short years. However, for the thousands of Chinese restaurant workers who’ve completed the dangerous journey to America, the trip from China often took just as long, and sometimes longer. “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” recounts the 1993 shipwreck of the Golden Venture, the highly-publicized human-smuggling operation that crashed onto New York’s Rockaway Beach after 112 days at sea.

Although political and social discussions give “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” an intelligent spin, for the most part, Lee explores the more light-hearted facets of Chinese-American culture: Things like the iconic, white-cardboard, take-out box or the ubiquitous soy sauce packet, which can typically be found in most American kitchens (sequestered in a drawer alongside the silverware, usually). With a commendably thorough approach to her subject, Lee uncovers food-related topics that are varied, yet interesting, with no filler to slow the overall pace of the narrative.

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