Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8. Lee: a review by RMJ [50 BPT]

Today's entry comes from - me!

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food
by Jennifer 8. Lee
The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is an excellent critique of Western perceptions of “foreign” food: how we obfuscate and change the foods of other cultures and place them into our own tradition while still othering the manipulated culture.

In her first chapter, Lee offers: “Our benchmark for Americanness is apple pie. But ask yourself: How often do you eat apple pie? How often do you eat Chinese food?” Chronicles is most successful when she shows the depth of American influence behind the ostensibly foreign food, from chop suey to General Tso’s chicken. She offers short, witty accounts of tensions behind the counter, including battles over soy sauce, those funny white delivery boxes, and kosher ducks.

Lee’s nonlinear report has moments of great emotional consequence when she moves away from the consumption of Chinese food and into its cost to restaurant workers. The emotional crux of this book is Lee’s account of the harrowing sacrifices workers make to emigrate from China on the ship The Golden Venture. The characters and communities who have collaboratively and without much credit shaped China Woks all over the country comprise the most revealing and compelling parts of Chronicles. Lee provides moments of suspense in stories on the 70’s “menu wars” that led to the national establishment of Chinese delivery and the subsequent violence against Chinese deliverymen.

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is a fun, informative, and well-written exploration of the curious paradigm of American Chinese food. Jennifer Lee serves as an able and witty guide through the murky and multifaceted points at which American and Chinese culinary traditions intersect and fuse into a new national institution.


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  1. Years ago, Mr Daisy looked up General Tso's chicken online and discovered it was largely an American creation (even though Gen Tso was a real person). That was the first time I learned of these issues!

    Certainly, I know that when southern/redneck cuisine travels north, it undergoes a KFC-yankee-type-transformation also... I should have realized that is true for every culture.

  2. There is actually a hilarious video I can no longer find - I think it was on Racialicious - in which Lee shows the original creator of General Tso's what the dish looks like now. He didn't recognize it and dismissed Lee immediately.


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