The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food

By Bill Kohlhaase

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Posted July 31, 2008 in Arts & Culture

Forget apple pie. Chop suey is America’s national food, or was until Kung pao chicken took its place. Jennifer Lee’s study of transplanted Asian cooking is a wide-angle view of the way America absorbs its immigrants even as it embraces facets of their culture. She points out that that there are more Chinese restaurants in the U.S. than McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken’s and Burger King’s combined. But the dishes these restaurants serve aren’t found in China. Lee’s investigation begins when numbers pulled from fortune cookies result in a bounty of lottery winners. Tracing the fortune cookie’s invention (probably by a Japanese baker in San Francisco) leads her to other all-American dishes—General Tso’s chicken—as well as the history of take-out and the blight of mass distributed menus. Along the way she discovers more about American tastes than Chinese cuisine and how, as one restaurant owner puts it, Chinese cooking took on American influence “to make a business out of it.” Lee is never heavy-handed with her cultural conclusions, but instead lets them unfold like a paper strip with a message. Equal parts history, economics and cultural study, Fortune Cookie stays with you longer than, well, you know.

–Bill Kohlhaase

Twelve Books, hardback, 307 pages, $24.99


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