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The Fortune Cookie Chronicles
Adventures in the World of Chinese Food

by Jennifer 8. Lee

      What does the Powerball lottery have in common with General Tso's Chicken? Not much you'd think. But then the two American inventions had something like a cosmic convergence the night the same "lucky numbers" being played from fortune cookies nationwide sent the lottery results haywire.

Reading about it set 2nd generation Chinese American Jennifer 8. (8 stands for prosperity) Lee to thinking in broader terms about fortunes and Chinese food and the people involved with both. So she decided to follow the "fortune cookie trail" back from the winners to the restaurants and factories from where they came, learning about the people and history behind them, and with luck even unraveling some of the mysteries to be found in the story of Chinese food in America. As she notes, "Our benchmark for Americanness is apple pie. But ask yourself: How often do you eat apple pie? How often do you eat Chinese food?" After all, according to The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, there are more Chinese restaurants in the US than the number of Burger Kings, KFCs and McDonalds combined - some forty thousand.

Winning lottery tickets took Ms Lee on an amazing odyssey from a Wyoming truck driver (whose wife was a founder of Elvis Presley's international fan club) who sought out Chinese restaurants as he traveled for their reliability, through the very different odysseys of the Chinese immigrants who work in and own the restaurants, to the apparent Japanese origins of the fortune cookies themselves. It's a fascinating trip, in large part because of Ms Lee, who explores it all with fascination, passion, wit, and an eye constantly open to the small absurdities in it all. To Americans, the familiar white cartons with wire handles say Chinese, to the rest of the world (where they barely exist), they say American - something hip and glamorous seen on Seinfeld or Friends. A feast at a famous L.A. dumpling house may be served up by a Chinese waitress, but the hands preparing the Chinese specialties in the back are probably Chicano.

In the end you'll be surprised how much fun you had while learning more than you thought existed to know about fortune cookies and Chinese food, along with an even more surprising amount about American culture. After all, as Ms Lee offers, now that the melting pot analogy for America seems to have fallen out of favor, "We are a stir-fry; our ingredients remain distinct, but our flavors blend together in a sauce share by all."

Highly recommended.

The Book

Twelve / Hachette Book Group USA
March 2008
0446580074 / 978-0446580076
Non-fiction / food / culture
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The Reviewer

Kim Malo
Reviewed 2008
© 2008