The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8. Lee

So, how are fortune cookies and Powerball (lottery) related?

And who really invented fortune cookies anyway–the Chinese or maybe the Japanese?

Why do Jewish people love Chinese food, or as Ms. Lee asks, “why is chow mein the chosen food of the Chosen People?”

Do you know where in China all those illegal immigrants to the U.S. come from—and what they leave behind?

Is chop suey really Chinese?

Who is General Tso, anyway, and why are we eating his chicken? Is it really his chicken?

And what’s the greatest Chinese restaurant in the world outside of China?

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: A Book Adventure through the Mysteries of Chinese Food by Jennifer 8. Lee (what’s with the middle numeral/initial?) purports to answer all of these questions and many more you didn’t know you had about Chinese food in the United States and the rest of the world.

There are more Chinese food restaurants in the U.S. than McDonalds, Burger Kings, and Wendy’s combined. Our family only eats restaurant or take-out Chinese food once or twice a year, but apparently we’re in the minority when it comes to Chinese food lovers.

I enjoyed reading about all of the quirks and ramifications of Americans’ love affair with Chinese food, but I must admit that Ms. Lee’s writing style, journalistic in nature, sometimes gave me reader’s whiplash. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles starts out as a book about the connection between a flood of of Powerball winners in March 2005 and the fortune cookies where they all found their winning numbers. Then it becomes a book about Chinese cuisine and where fortune cookies were invented. Then, suddenly we were dealing with other topics, such as Chinese illegal immigration or the Kosher Duck Scandal of 1989 or Cajun Chinese food or the source of take-out boxes or the soy sauce controversy.

Yes, all of these topics and more are at least tangentially related to Ms. Lee’s main topic, American Chinese food, but the material, while fascinating, is not organized as well as I might have liked. A lot of back-tracking and rabbit trails lead the reader on a winding road through the world of Chinese food and Chinese restaurants and Chinese influence in the United States and in the world. As long as you can take the twist and turns, which hardly ever slow down enough to be boring, you’ll like Ms. Lee’s guided tour through the world of Chinese cuisine.

A few facts and stories I found particularly interesting:

Did you know that there’s one particular day in the year that hundreds of Chinese immigrants in New York’s Chinatown choose to get married? No, not Valentine’s Day and not New Year’s Day and not in June.

Most of the fortunes in the fortune cookies we get from our favorite Chinese restaurants are curated, written, and sold by three guys, two of whom aren’t on speaking terms as a result of stolen fortunes (the written ones, not money).

There really are a bunch of “kosher Chinese restaurants” to serve the Jewish community.

People who organize the smuggling of illegal Chinese immigrants into the United States are known as “snakeheads”.

I especially found the chapter about a specific Chinese immigrant family who bought a restaurant and saw their family implode from the pressures of running that restaurant in rural Georgia and adjusting to the cultural expectations of 21st century America. It was a sad story of family dysfunction and cultural misunderstanding and over-zealous child protection services run amuck. I wanted to know what happened to the family and where they are now. So I stopped and prayed for them. (Do you ever pray for the people you read about in magazine articles and nonfiction books?)

Real Chinese people and fortune cookies:

One thought on “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8. Lee

  1. I read this book a couple of years ago when it first came out. It is so delightful. I happen to be a history buff & this had so much wonderful & very interesting information in it. The author has such a sense of humor & after reading about her journeys & personal life on this quest to find the answers, you really feel as though you have made a new friend. There are some books you will read & forget about; this is not one of them.

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