Friday, July 4, 2008

"Chinese-American Experience" Cookie

Book Review

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food
Jennifer 8. Lee

On the record, I've never liked fortune cookies. They taste bland, and even as a kid I knew to spend my calories elsewhere. However, I did like to pulverize them, feeling empowered by my ability to Hulk smash something into dust, then pluck out the little slip of white paper. They were amusements while my relatives chatted on for what seemed like hours after meals. Still, they were more a careless diversion than anything else. The Chinese restaurants my family frequented served desserts like red bean soup and tapioca pudding, not fortune cookies. Right off the bat, I knew they were not Chinese.

Jennifer Lee took what I considered a mere curiosity and made it into the basis for a book. This isn't a book on Chinese food though; it is distinctively Chinese-American. From my perspective, as an American-born-Chinese, it spoke to the same immigrant stories that I have heard countless times. Even though the emphasis at times is on Chinese-American food like the exploration of the history of General Tso, cuisine seems to be more of a launching pad than a destination. Lee uses the shared element of food to characterize the Chinese experience coming to America and spreading around the world. In some ways, the Chinese restaurants represent more homogeneity than the fast food nation. After all, according to her, the forty thousand Chinese restaurants in the United States outnumber the McDonald's, Burger Kings and KFCs combined. Yet almost each one of these restaurants serves the staple wonton soup, egg rolls, and some sweet-and-sour mess. Her analogy of Chinese restaurants as open-source software is perceptive and thought-provoking.

While easy to read, the style is overly sensational at times. Her experience as a metro reporter at the New York Times creeps through her prose. The book sometimes lacks overall cohesiveness as the anecdotes and tangents often don't tie well enough back into the main narrative. At times I felt like I was being led down a dead-end, or even better, digesting information one slip of paper at a time. In this sense, it felt less like a book than a collection of articles loosely bound under the theme of the Chinese-American experience. Reading it felt like digesting the pastries that were the inspiration fo the book--slightly sweet, but artificial.

Ultimately, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is not what I initially expected. I thought it would be more about the food and less about the people; but getting over that expectation, I enjoyed reading about the spread of Chinese-American cuisine. For a book that actually delves into authentic Chinese cusine, I recommend Swallowing Clouds by A. Zee. I do commend Lee on her extraordinary research. While I did not crush this book like I did with my fortune cookies, I did find little slips of wisdom.

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