Mmmmmm....cookies. Cookies with fortunes. That great Chinese tradition that goes all the way back to Japan. Yes, according to The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer Lee, the fortune cookie is a Japanese creation. That's not all. There's really not much of anything that we call Chinese food here in America that can trace its origins to China.
Take out boxes? Don't even exist over there. They were originally used here in the states for hauling seafood. General Tso's chicken? Unheard of across the Pacific. Chop Suey? Ditto. About the only thing that does come from China that is involved in Chinese food are Chinese people.
Lee's exceptionally well-researched book looks at virtually every aspect of Chinese food in an effort to understand what about Chinese cuisine Americans find so appealing. Lee, an American-born Chinese, has always had a fascination with the food of her culture but was entranced by a freak occurrence with the Powerball lottery. In 2005, an amazing 110 people selected all five white numbers in the Powerball lottery. Probabilistically speaking, your typical Powerball drawing will see 2-4 people get all five. Needless to say, the lottery people were panicked and confused. As the winners came in from all over the country, it was discovered that all the winners had something in common; all played numbers from a fortune cookie.
This news story captured Lee's attention and set her on her hunt to find the appeal of Chinese food. Along the way she tackles virtually aspect of Chinese food. Especially interesting is her look at immigration and the network of Chinese restaurant staffing in the U.S. I say especially interesting but really I don't think there was a chapter I did not find interesting.
All in all I really enjoyed the book. Lee's style rubbed me the wrong way sometimes. Her need to describe everyone she meets with a one-line description about their face, for instance, or her occasional jumping around with time for no apparent reason were bothersome to me. However, she is a reporter by trade and she reports her stories well with great research. And unlike other "books of objects (such as, oh, Mark Kurlansky's Salt), the tone is very light and breezy and makes for an enjoyable read.
Most of the things I read in 2008 were mediocre. It wasn't until the final two weeks of the year when I read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants and F. Scott Fitzgeralds Tender is the Night that I could match the number of good books I had read in the first fifty weeks (Toby Barlow's Sharp Teeth, Tom McCarthy's Remainder and Ann Patchett's Run. With Lee's book and Benjamin Zander's Art of Possibility (to be reviewed next week), 2009 is shaping up as a good reading year.