May 2009

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles – Jennifer 8. Lee

About: 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 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 travel-like 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 mini-histories 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. From Publishers Weekly.

My Thoughts: After finishing up a good read, I try to take some time away from it in order to fully digest what I’ve learned. I find that over time, certain themes and stories stay with me, while others fade to black. It’s been a solid month since I finished up The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, and I still can’t stop thinking about the Chinese village of Houyu. With more than three-quarters of its population working in Chinese restaurants in the United States, all that remains in Houyu are women, children, and giant mansions built from back-breaking American dollars. “This is what General Tso’s chicken buys in China,” Lee writes. It’s haunting stories like this one that makes this book a real page-turner.

Some of the most poignant tales in The Fortune Cookie Chronicles explore issues of immigration. I was fascinated to learn that New York City is the chief point of reference for all Chinese immigrants. Cities outside the Big Apple are defined by their relative distance (in hours by bus) from East Broadway in Chinatown. It’s crazy to think that the network of Chinatown buses I used to ride from Philly to New York and D.C. sprung up to transport new immigrant laborers to Chinese restaurants outside New York.

Although Lee tackles a number of heavy issues in her book, she also weaves in a handful of lighter stories. One of the most enjoyable chapters focused on Lee’s quest for “The Greatest Chinese Restaurant Outside Greater China.” I was hoping with all of my heart that she’d find it in the San Gabriel Valley, but alas, she chose Zen Fine Chinese Cuisine outside Vancouver.

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is an entertaining and exceptionally well-written exploration of everything under the Chinese-American sun. This book is an essential read for anyone who’s ever added the words “in bed” to the end of their fortune cookie prophecies or wondered whether General Tso’s Chicken was actually eaten in China. After reading this book, soy sauce packets and delivery menus will never be seen in the same light again.

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8 thoughts on “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles – Jennifer 8. Lee

  1. This looks like an interesting read! I just put a request at the library; luckily there are 8 books and only requests! Do you think her middle name is really 8.??

  2. I have been DYING to read this book!! Much of my parents’ & grandparents’ early years in the states were spent working in Chinese restaurants; I’m sure that I’ll not only find this book entertaining but also touching on so many different levels.

    OK, going to Amazon to order now! 🙂

  3. Nina – I do believe her middle name IS 8. It’s a lucky number 😉

    Pam – In all likelihood, reading this book with your family in mind will make it even better. Lee’s a great storyteller.

    Sharon – I loved everything about her presentation except the fact that she talked SO, SO fast. She also gave away a lot of the book’s secrets, which I can’t decide is good or bad.

    Rivers – VERY cool. NERDZ!

  4. funny you mention this because i just picked it up the other day! i’m not totally drawn in yet.. i’m waiting for that moment…

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