Wednesday, July 15, 2009


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.


Aimee K. Maher said...

HA! I love it. What's with the 8? (I would ask that)

Amanda Davis said...

The REVIEW made me hungry. Luckily, there's leftover Tso's in the fridge.

Sandra said...

I have a copy of this to look forward to. Glad you enjoyed it.

Precie said...

Damn. General Tso is one of my favorites. I've always wondered about the name. Sigh...another book to add to my ever-growing pile.

CKHB said...

Jenny 8 Lee went to the same NYC high school as me (graduating a few years later), and she changed her middle name to "8" because there were just so damn many Jenny Lees.

moonrat said...

plus 8 is lucky in Chinese, apparently.

Jane Steen said...

I think this one's going on my reading list. I moved to the States from Belgium, where the Chinese restaurants are way, way better, and nobody's ever heard of moo goo gai pan.

Odd, isn't it, how food gets Americanized? Pizza here is absolutely nothing like pizza in Italy, and don't even get me started on Belgian waffles. The general aim of American restaurants seems to be to multiply the calorie count by about a factor of 10, by stuffing in as much sugar and fat as they can. Oh, and to resize the portions to gargantuan.

OK now I'm hungry too. Great review.

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

Fun review, fun book -- but I AM worried. How will I read this without Chinese food at my side, night after night? My family and I recently watched a movie (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) in which there was a scene of the protagonists eating out of Chinese containers (the classic ones, not today's yucky styrofoam clamshells) and that alone sent us into paroxysms of Kung Pao/Moo Shu cravings. DELIVERY!

Jennie said...

I loved this book so much.

Also, Jane, Lee talks about how Chinese food is different than Chinese-American food, but also how it's different from Chinese-Indian food and Chinese-French food. All countries change food to suit their tastes and her exploration of that was really interesting.

The time I went out for Mexican in China really proved this. (It was good, and similar to what I was used to, but also very different.)