Ambitious Fortune Cookie, Sweet and Sharp, Finally Crumbles

030708 lee web Ambitious Fortune Cookie, Sweet and Sharp, Finally CrumblesTHE FORTUNE COOKIE CHRONICLES: ADVENTURES IN THE WORLD OF CHINESE FOOD
By Jennifer 8. Lee
Twelve, 291 pages, $24.99

I ordered lunch today from the go-to Chinese restaurant around the corner from my office. It came in a large plastic bag that held a large paper bag filled with all sorts of containers: a white, microwave-safe bowl of chicken with cashews; a box of vegetable fried rice; a tightly sealed bowl of hot and sour soup; a small wax-paper bag with one vegetable spring roll; another small wax-paper bag with those crispy noodles; a Ziploc bag thoughtfully packed with a fork, a spoon, two napkins, one packet of Chinese mustard, one packet of soy sauce and two packets of duck sauce, plus a separately packaged fortune cookie; and finally, in its own stapled brown bag, a pint of homemade lemonade. Total cost: $9.48.

I got through the soup, the spring roll and about half the chicken dish when both my lemonade and my appetite ran out. It was a familiar feeling with this particular cuisine, a premature fullness, a sense that, despite the apparent range of options, I had gotten all I would get out of this meal.

 

THE FORTUNE COOKIE Chronicles, by New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee, is a multi-bagged endeavor, a global book in the most literal sense, and it both benefits and suffers as a result.

Ms. Lee grew up, with her Chinese-born parents, in what she calls Szechuan Alley, the stretch of Upper Broadway known for its abundance of Chinese restaurants—in particular Empire Szechuan, run by a woman named Misa Chang, who both thrilled and enraged her neighbors in the 1970’s by offering free home delivery as well as free stacks of menus in every foyer. Ms. Lee calls Chang the “proto-spammer,” which means that those multilingual “No Menus Please” signs were the earliest spam filters.

This background seems to have created in Ms. Lee a profound sense of cultural dislocation. “Look at me and you may see someone Chinese,” she writes. “Close your eyes, and you will hear someone American.” It’s true: The book reads largely like the observations of an outsider. To her, an image of Buddha conjures Jabba the Hutt. She is an outsider with a stake, for sure, but unfortunately there are few insights to be gained thereby.

Early on, Ms. Lee comes to the realization that “Chinese” food is an amalgam of culture and history that is not authentically Chinese at all—it is food made by Chinese people who have come to America and are feeding, and also shaping, the American appetite. Perhaps Americans once believed the Chinese ate rats like popcorn, but they came around quickly enough: As Ms. Lee describes, chop suey (“odds and ends” in Cantonese) is “the greatest culinary prank” ever played by one culture on another.

The book is sprinkled with engaging and poignant stories; some you vaguely remember hearing before—say, the Chinese deliveryman who went missing for days and was presumed dead, only to be found alive and more or less well, stuck in the express elevator of a Bronx high-rise. Others you’re hearing for the first time—such as the moving tale of the Chinese couple who buy a restaurant in rural Georgia and wind up losing their children to the state. In this story, as with several others in a similar vein, Ms. Lee’s writing has a familiar, newspapery briskness that is immediately compelling. But when the stories get tedious, the clichés become evident. Rivers “run red with blood,” old ladies with liver spots have “belly-shaking giggles,” fortune cookies are the “Cliffs Notes version of wisdom,” and so on.

Ms. Lee does make some astute observations. Unlike McDonald’s, she writes, which was always a centralized operation, Chinese restaurants are essentially open-source: Their similarity and their success is the result of the constant exchange of workers criss-crossing the country, sharing knowledge—a “global localization” of the cuisine. (She wryly notes that when, after years of failed attempts, McDonald’s finally scored with Chicken McNuggets, two of the four dipping sauces they offered were inspired by Chinese cuisine.)

She also gives due weight to the unique relationship between the Chinese and the Jews in 20th-century America. Beyond the obvious Christmas connection, Ms. Lee points out that the Chinese satisfied the Jews’ desire to have someone nearby who was less American than they were. Today there remain amusing grace notes: Ms. Lee speaks with a “Brooklyn-based Chinese-restaurant consultant” named Ed Schoenfeld; and Kari-Out, the leading American producer of soy-sauce packets, is owned by a Jewish family from Westchester.

And yet, by about halfway through the book, Ms. Lee had worn me out. This was partly due to the breathtaking amount of travel she undertook to write it. For instance, in 2005, 110 people around the country correctly picked five of six numbers in the weekly Powerball lottery—an unprecedented result that was traced to the lucky-numbers list in a mass-produced fortune-cookie fortune. Ms. Lee tells the story with perfect pitch and pacing, in a way that allows you to retell it with the same drama and intrigue. Then we learn that the incident led her to attempt to visit every restaurant that had given out one of the “winning” cookies. This voyage takes her from Nebraska to Wyoming to Louisiana to Rhode Island—and that’s just Chapter One.