The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food
is a survey of the history of Chinese food by Chinese-American author and magazine reporter Jennifer 8. Lee. The book argues that globalization has made most food categories, including that of “Chinese” food, too capacious to explain as a set of ingredients or styles. Rather, Lee argues, a historian of food culture should try to articulate its transformation in narrative form. Lee takes stock of Chinese food culture’s historical and sociological changes, including her own relationship to it. She shows that Chinese food is more common than all of America’s major fast food chains combined, and examines some of its peculiar manifestations, from its adoption by Jews to its involvement in the indentured servitude of illegal immigrants.
Lee begins her book with a prologue about the ubiquitous fortune cookie. Though many Americans find the fortune cookie synonymous with Chinese food, its invention dates back merely a century, originating in Japanese cuisine. Their first appearance can be traced to small bakeries that set up shop near Japanese shrines which sold small sweet crisps that were meant to be placed there as offerings. Before World War II, the main bakers of fortune cookies were Japanese-Americans. After the mid-century blight of anti-Japanese racism, and the internment of a huge portion of the Japanese-American population in concentration camps, the production of fortune cookies was taken up by a Jewish family.
Lee estimates that there are roughly 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States at the time of writing. They outnumber Burger King, KFC, and McDonald's, existing in more cities and towns than fast food chains. Lee examines the often perilous means by which people come to own or work in Chinese restaurants. Often, they immigrate illegally from China, paying exorbitant amounts of money on the black market simply to have a chance at a better life. Lee traces the roots of Chinese immigration to their own commodification by Americans after the Civil War. To American businessmen, Chinese people represented cheap labor and industriousness. They faced extremely harsh discrimination, were actively disenfranchised, beaten, and even lynched. Americans relegated their functional roles into the domestic sphere, which they often called “women’s work.” This functional shift spurred the proliferation of Chinese laundries and restaurants that we see today.
Lee also covers how Chinese-American cuisine became its own class of food, distinct from both Chinese food and American food. She argues that the Chinese food empire is an under-acknowledged analogue to the empires of figures such as Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s. It started as a food culture that was somewhat preserved but piggybacked on American capitalism, eventually becoming highly modular and efficient. Pressures for efficiency necessitated changes in the form, quality, taste, and presentation of the cuisine itself.
Lee concludes her book by tracing her attempt to find the best Chinese restaurant. Her search led to one location, Zen Fine Chinese Cuisine, near Vancouver, Canada. Though her search singles out one restaurant, she asserts that the true value of Chinese cuisine is in more than the taste. It touches on every aspect of Chinese identity, including her own Chinese-American identity. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles
is an affirmation of Chinese-American immigrant narratives that goes beyond an analysis of Chinese food’s history and sociology.