I started Jennifer 8 Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles expecting an informative romp through the world of Chinese restaurants. At first, I got what I was expecting. She begins with the 110 winners of a single Powerball jackpot in 2005, and the officials’ discovery that the winning number came from the lucky numbers on fortune cookies distributed throughout the country. From there, she investigates the question of whether the Japanese or the Chinese invented fortune cookies and traces the consolidation of the business into one East Coast and one West Coast manufacturer. From there, it’s a short hop past the invention of chop suey, which is pretty well ensconsed in culinary lore (invented by Chinese cooks at the time of the railroads, it means “odds and ends” in Chinese) into the ubiquitous spread of chop suey houses during the Depression (cheap, nourishing, flavorful, and exotic, this last proof of one’s sophistication). Along the way, she details the invention of take out food and under-the-door menus.
There is a brief interlude into the history of General Tso and his chicken, which, like chop suey, is an entirely American dish. She shows a picture of the dish to cooks in the General’s hometown, eliciting the response, “That’s not Chinese food. Where are the vegetables?” There is a brief examination of broccoli, which along with bean sprouts, snow peas, and bok choy, represents the entire variety of Chinese vegetables to the American Chinese restaurant-goer. All of this is exactly what I wanted and more. I could go one, spoiling much of the book for you, but I won’t. You get the picture.
But, when she dives into the restaurants themselves and the families, legal and otherwise, who run them, that is when the lighthearted romp turns serious. The term “snakehead” for the person who transports illegal Asians out of China is chilling enough. The stories of the people who are smuggled in, and their lives once they are here, says more about illegal immigration than all of the tea party’s rants. For some, the result is indentured servitude. For others, it is a lifetime of hard work with family life centered around the restaurant and the hope, realized or not, that the next generation won’t have to work in the restaurant. It reminded me of the times I have seen the children of the owners at a Chinese restaurant. The cost of a Chinese restaurant, for those who are interested, is generally 3 times monthly receipts. Lee traces the restaurant business from those who specialize in opening them to those who work in them and whose knowledge of America is based on how many hours by bus a particular area code is from New York City to the families that own them, who buy and sell restaurants in different parts of the countries. There are tragedies, there are successes, and there are the more common mixes that make up most lives.
At first, I thought I would never eat at a Chinese restaurant again. Then, I thought I should eat every meal at one, to help out the owners. I know now why all Chinese menus seem printed by the same companies–they are, for the most part, but that is not the point. She paints Chinese restaurants as large distributed systems, like Linux, where every innovation quickly becomes absorbed into kernal because of successful innovation or fear of not keeping up. The model works for Indian and Mexican restaurants as well. In fact, the only question she left unanswered for me was why so many Asian restaurants seem to be owned by Koreans.
Everyone who is interested in food and restaurants and culture needs to read this book. It’s got the interesting details, but it covers a far bigger field than the waiter’s rants, chef’s exposés, and introspective tales of cooks or non-cooks that make up the bulk of food writing these days. Recommended.