The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

In 2005, there were 110 winners of the $84 million Powerball, with 104 picking the same sixth number instead of the final Powerball number. They got the numbers from fortune cookies. That led Jennifer 8 Lee on the road, crisscrossing the country looking for the fortune cookie lottery winners, and finding out more about Chinese food in the United States.

“American Chinese food is predictable, familiar, and readily available. It has a broad appeal to the national palate. It is something nearly everyone nowadays has grown up – both young and old. I marveled that on a single day, Chinese food had united so many different people from different parts of the country: a schoolteacher in Tennessee, a farmer-veterinarian in Wisconsin, a research microbiologist in Kansas, a police sergeant from New Mexico, retired septuagenarian snowbirds from Iowa, a bank clerk in South Carolina, a salesman from New Hampshire.

Our benchmark for Americanness is apple pie. But ask yourself: How often do you eat apple pie? How often do you eat Chinese food?”

Growing up, I read about Chinese American food with some confusion. What was chop suey? I’d never heard of it. I think I had my first fortune cookie when on holiday in San Francisco. It was kind of disappointing. It was fun to crack open but to eat? It was bland and not very exciting.

Now that I live in the Bay Area, the number of Chinese food options are quite wide. There’s plenty of Hong Kong style restaurants, and surprisingly ample southeast Asian eats. Just on Sat, in a strip mall in Union City, we feasted on Hokkien mee, kang kong with sambal belachan, roti canai, steamed pomfret Teochew style, beef rendang. All pretty good, and quite reminiscent of the food back home. We haven’t eaten at the more American Chinese places like PF Changs which Lee mentions, nor have we been to Panda Express. But I am curious to try General Tso’s chicken, the origins of which Lee attempts to trace back to China.

Lee has written a very ambitious book, one with much potential. But it was ultimately let down by average writing and could-be-better editing. It is obvious that she did a lot of research for this book, and sometimes, it felt like she might have had too much research that she didn’t know quite what to do with it.

This book was quite an adventure into a culinary and cultural world that I am not quite familiar with. I just wish that the book was edited bit better, instead of the rather disjointed way that the chapters are pieced together. For instance, Lee explains in one of the last few chapters, “This book began as a quest to understand Chinese food. But three years later, six continents, twenty-three countries and forty-two states later, I realize it was actually a personal journey to understand myself.” This interesting and insightful personal chapter sounded very much like it was the end of the book, so I was surprised to have to slog through two more chapters, one on ‘Open-source Chinese restaurants’ (eh) and the final chapter on fortune cookie fortunes. I could see what they were trying to do – link it back to the fortune cookie story that began this book. But this was one cookie affair that went on a bit too long for me.

3 Comments

  1. I missed this review — glad you got a chance to read the book, even if you didn’t enjoy it as much as I did. I read the book a few years back, so, as so often in life with memories, I may be only remembering the good points.
    What I enjoyed about the book were the series of essays that gave me a greater insight into how Chinese food has impacted American culture — from the start of Chinese takeout in New York City (with the commentary on the dangers that face deliverymen) to the Chinatown buses established to move immigrants to jobs across the US to the unique Chinese dishes in different parts of the US. I’d be curious to hear what you think of General Tsos chicken if you do try it someday.

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  2. I am glad that I read the book, as it provided some interesting information about American Chinese food, especially the very intriguing but disputed history of the fortune cookie.

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