August 18, 2008

BOOKS: The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, Jennifer 8. Lee (2008)

Yes, the author's middle name is "8;" the number signifies prosperity in Chinese culture, as we all surely know by now after hearing the umptyzillionth explanation of why the Olympic opening ceremonies began at 8:08 pm on 8/8/08.

Lee's book began with her attempt to find the real origins of the fortune cookie, and broadened into an exploration of the Chinese restaurnt in America. Chinese food is popular here; there are more than 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the US, which is more than the combined number of McDonald's, Burger Kings, and KFCs.

As Lee quickly points out, though, what we get in most US Chinese restaurants isn't authentic Chinese food; most native Chinese wouldn't recognize it as such. (One of the book's funniest chapters has Lee traveling through China in search of the original General Tso's Chicken.) Lee calls it "American Chinese food," and it's taken on a life of its own to the extent that in traveling around the world, you're just as likely to find American Chinese restaurants as you are to find authentic Chinese food.

It's an entertaining book, though it doesn't add up to much more than a series of amusing stories and interesting bits of trivia. (Biggest day for marriages among Chinese-American families? Thanksgiving, the one day when US families don't order Chinese takeout and the restaurant can close without losing much money.) Lee meanders from one topic to the next -- the development of delivery in New York in the late 1970s, the hellish journey of illegal Chinese immigrants to the US, the great Kosher Duck Scandal of 1989, the debates over what can and cannot legally be called "soy sauce" -- telling her stories in amiable fashion, like a friend who happens to be unusually knowledgeable on the subject.

No comments: