The Fortune Cookie Chronicles : Adventures in the World of Chinese Food

In The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, Jennifer 8. Lee notes that there are twice as many Chinese restaurants as McDonald’s franchises in the United States. The vast majority are mom-and-pop shops, so they aren’t standardized like fast food chains, but throughout much of the country, they offer a similarly predictable experience, from the soy sauce packets and the takeout containers to the food itself. (“What Chinese restaurant menu doesn’t offer beef with broccoli, sesame chicken, roast pork lo mein, fried wontons, egg rolls, and egg drop soup?” she asks in one of the book’s many passages best avoided on an empty stomach.)

While Ray Kroc is well known as the visionary entrepreneur who guided McDonald’s to global domination, there is, as Lee observes, no one individual associated with the rise of the Chinese restaurant in America. Rather, she argues, “American Chinese food has become its own brand.” Lee, a New York Times metro reporter, is the American-born daughter of Chinese parents (her middle name symbolizes prosperity in Chinese), and growing up in New York City, the meals she enjoyed in Chinese restaurants were unlike those her mother cooked at home, which involved a lot of pickled and preserved ingredients, not to mention a variety of animal parts you’d be hard-pressed to find at your local Hunan Palace. The significance of these different strands of Chinese cooking didn’t strike Lee until adulthood. Her debut book is a quest to “unravel the nagging mysteries of Chinese food in America,” to figure out how the restaurant fare became so distinct from authentic Chinese cooking and, more improbable, as American as apple pie.

Lee begins at the end, with dessert — specifically, the confections that give the book its title. On March 30, 2005, the Powerball multistate lottery drawing yielded a whopping 110 winners, which initially made lottery officials fear fraud. Before long, the real explanation became apparent: the winners had chosen the lucky numbers from fortune cookies they were served at Chinese restaurants. Lee intends this story to be the book’s conceit — her research included traveling the country and visiting the restaurants that served the cookies to the winners — but it doesn’t quite gel. Instead, the Powerball episode is more a jumping-off point from which she explores the origins of fortune cookies and the general phenomenon of Chinese food in America. The wobbliness of the unifying motif hardly matters, though: Lee’s journey provides her enough rich historical and cultural material to make the book an appealing and often fascinating read.

The history of Chinese food in America begins with the shameful treatment of early Chinese immigrants to the United States. “Before Americans loved Chinese food…they loathed it,” Lee declares. Chinese men arrived in waves beginning in the mid-19th century; the majority hailed from a region in the Guangdong Province that had been ravaged by natural disaster and war. As they found jobs in mining, agriculture, and manufacturing, anti-Chinese sentiment increased, and, as Lee’s thorough research reveals, some of it focused on the aliens’ strange ways with food (“Some reasons for Chinese exclusion: meat versus rice,” read a pamphlet by the American Federation of Labor’s Samuel Gompers). The backlash culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act, enacted and amended between 1882 and 1902, which restricted immigration and excluded Chinese immigrants from citizenship. Employers feared hiring Chinese workers, who were thus compelled to carve out livings in other ways. “The Chinese response still dots the American landscape today: restaurants and laundries,” Lee writes. Cooking and cleaning, seen as women’s work, didn’t threaten white laborers.

With the labor threat removed, Lee explains, Americans were open to experiencing the rapidly proliferating Chinese restaurants, now seen as exotic and sophisticated. The first Chinese food craze to sweep the nation, at the turn of the 20th century, was chop suey, which diners would have been surprised to learn was unknown in China. The term means “odds and ends” in Cantonese, and Lee assesses the various myths that have evolved to explain the dish’s origins, most of which involve a chef throwing something together for customers who mistake the improvised meal for authentic Chinese fare. Chop suey has faded from most restaurant menus, and its modern equivalent may be General Tso’s chicken. “In America, General Tso…is known for chicken, not war,” Lee writes. “In China, he is known for war, not chicken.”

Today, illegal immigration from China to the U.S. is inextricably connected to the restaurant industry, and some of the author’s strongest reporting focuses on this relationship. She visits the southeastern Chinese province of Fujian, the source of a majority of Chinese restaurant workers in the United States. Immigrants today pay an astounding $70,000, usually scraped together from family and neighbors, to bribe officials and forge the documents necessary for the perilous trek to America. In one small town in the region, which has sent three-quarters of its population to work in the U.S., Lee observes a class learning from a textbook titled Practical English for Chinese Restaurants.

Upon arrival, the immigrants link into one of dozens of Manhattan employment agencies whose sole purpose is to place Chinese restaurant workers in jobs around the country. Workers tend to move around a lot, journeying to and from jobs via the budget Chinatown buses that have recently become popular with travelers of all stripes. It is through networks like these, Lee argues, that Chinese restaurants have evolved into a sort of singular entity, as recipes and ideas are shared and improved upon.

Lee admits, more than once, that she is “obsessed” with Chinese food in a way that her friends and family find “worrisome.” Her fierce attachment to her topic is surely a net benefit to the book, but she can be over-the-top. Lee pursues her ideas all over the globe, and the payoff is sometimes pretty slight (was it worth “the difficult ordeal” of finding the rural birthplace of General Tso to be told flatly by two of his descendants, who examine her photographs of General Tso’s chicken, that “no one here eats this”?). Her search for “the greatest Chinese restaurant in the world outside of China” sent her to Peru, Singapore, Dubai, Mauritius, India, Australia, and Jamaica, among many others (the winner: Zen Fine Chinese Cuisine outside of Vancouver). I felt jet-lagged just reading about it.

And as is common with the obsessed, Lee is occasionally a bit too breathless about her subject. “This book began as a quest to understand Chinese food,” she writes. “But three years, six continents, 23 countries, and 42 states later, I realize it was actually a personal journey to understand myself.” Fortunately, these occasional lapses into the saccharine are overcome by the tantalizing information she consistently dishes out. Back to the fortune cookies, which, incidentally, originated not in China but Japan. She (of course) visits the Japanese shrine that inspired the modern fortune cookie and meets a robed priest who is dismayed to learn that in America, fortunes are uniformly positive. Brooklyn-based Wonton Food, the U.S.’s largest manufacturer of the treats and the source of all those Powerball wins, tried, during the 1990s, to market fortune cookies in China, but the venture failed. A company executive explained to Lee that the cookies were “too American.” Now, that’s something to chew on.