Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Jennifer 8 Lee/THE FORTUNE COOKIE CHRONICLES: ADVENTURES IN THE WORLD OF CHINESE FOOD
Who could have imagined the fascinating, humorous, horrific, ludicrous, and sad history of American Chinese food? Jenny 8 Lee, apparently. This eminently readable book details Lee's quest to find the origin of the fortune cookie--and the many strange stories of the American "Chinese" restaurant (not to be mistaken with actual Chinese cuisine, which is a totally different set of foods) she uncovered along the way.
Ah yes, this book was written specifically for me. And, it turns out, for most of America--there are more American-style Chinese restaurants in the US than there are McDonald'ses, KFCs, and Burger Kings put together.
The book begins with a 2005 Powerball lottery, when instead of the expected 4 or 6 winners, an unprecedented and unbelievable 110 people won the 2nd place jackpot--they all chose their numbers from the same nationally-distributed fortune cookie.
This is the beginning of what Lee calls "spontaneous self-organization"--literally hundreds of American Chinese restaurants across the country, staffed by strangers who have never met one another and are operating under the thumb of absolutely no higher order, all sell essentially the same foods (not, it should be mentioned, Chinese in their elements or inspiration).
Her quest takes her on the "Long March of General Tso"--where did General Tso's chicken come from? Why do people think sugar-covered fried chicken is a Chinese food, when nothing could be more American? How did this very real war hero, like Colonel Sanders, somehow become famous only for chicken?--to the great Fortune Cookie Debate--are they Chinese or Japanese?--to the kosher duck scandal of 1989, to the origins of the delivery bike culture as it was born in the 1970s, to the village in Fujian from which thousands of Chinese people have departed, risking their lives and at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars, to come to America for the opportunity to work thankless hours for the very little we tip them. Lee even goes (literally) around the world on the quest for the "greatest" Chinese restaurant, and explores why it is, exactly, that Chinese food seems to taste better in dive restaurants.
Needless to say, I, um, ate this one up.
And while my boyfriend was a fan of the book, which he stole to read when I was trying to finish it, he would like Miss 8 Lee (should she be reading this) to know he doesn't like her personally. It is HER fault, after all, that every single night for an entire week he was sent out at 11 pm to scrounge up General Tso's Chicken, Hot & Sour Soup, Kung Po Chicken, Crab Rangoon, Beef Chow Fun, and several other late-evening snacks.
Yeah, be forewarned--reading this book will make you hungry.