General Tso’s way

The path of a Chinese foodie
By CLEA SIMON  |  March 12, 2008

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STILL HUNGRY: Lee offers tasty tidbits but an unsatisfying meal.

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food | By Jennifer 8. Lee | Twelve Books | 318 pages | $24.99
Behind every dish lies a story, and behind a cuisine, well, there may be a book. That’s the idea that New York Times metro reporter Jennifer 8. Lee started with in her debut collection, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. Through a series of loosely connected essays, Lee (whose middle initial signifies “prosperity” in her ancestral Chinese) examines the world around what we consider Chinese food, dissecting such American phenomena as fortune cookies, General Tso’s chicken, and those ubiquitous white take-out containers. Along the way, she also addresses the sociology of centuries of Chinese emigration, which has spread this so-called ethnic cuisine to Dubai, Mauritius, and tiny Hiawassee, Georgia. What she writes about is a culture within a culture, one that has adapted almost beyond recognition, and yet continues to be considered apart. “Our benchmark for Americanness is apple pie,” she writes. “But ask yourself: How often do you eat apple pie? How often do you eat Chinese food?”

There’s a lot to grapple with here. Lee’s prologue considers that night in 2005 when the multiple-state Powerball lottery was nearly bankrupted by a surprising number of winners. Nobody had cheated. But the winning numbers had also appeared through random luck in a fortune cookie. The fortune above the “lucky numbers” seemed auspicious: “All the preparation you’ve done will finally be paying off.” And superstitious diners from Minnesota to South Carolina had tried them. Lee returns to those fortunes at the book’s end, disclosing the Western roots of so many supposedly Confucian sayings, but the power of the cookie, which may have been a Japanese-American invention, has already made its mark: Chinese food is more American than apple pie.

That idea is the kickoff for Lee’s explorations. As an American child of immigrants, she grew up recognizing that the food her mother cooked bore little resemblance to the so-called “Chinese” cuisine of New York restaurants. When she takes pictures of one of this country’s most popular dishes, General Tso’s chicken, back to the general’s birthplace, she is met with disbelief, and outright disgust. Americans like meat, sweet things, and deep-fat frying, she reveals. And though she does delve deeper — discussing the fate of the surviving refugees of the shipwrecked Golden Venture, for example — she never quite matches that first moment of apple-pie revelation.

The problem is not the concept so much as the execution. With their light and conversational tone, too many of these essays read like newspaper features, with rhetorical questions (“So what happened?”) standing in for transitions, and statistics (“In the half century from 1870 and 1920, the number of Chinese restaurant workers surged from 164 to 11,438”) for substance. Although numbers abound in The Fortune Cookie Chronicles and the book ends with footnotes, too little of Lee’s research is incorporated into the text. “A Chinese skull fashioned into a sugar bowl graced the table of one ranch home for many years” doesn’t even give us details about the location or the owners of that grisly relic.

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