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The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food Hardcover – March 3, 2008


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The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food + Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Twelve; First Edition edition (March 3, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0446580074
  • ISBN-13: 978-0446580076
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.3 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (92 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #570,005 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Readers will take an unexpected and entertaining journey—through culinary, social and cultural history—in this delightful first book on the origins of the customary after-Chinese-dinner treat by New York Times reporter Lee. When a large number of Powerball winners in a 2005 drawing revealed that mass-printed paper fortunes were to blame, the author (whose middle initial is Chinese for prosperity) went in search of the backstory. She tracked the winners down to Chinese restaurants all over America, and the paper slips the fortunes are written on back to a Brooklyn company. This travellike narrative serves as the spine of her cultural history—not a book on Chinese cuisine, but the Chinese food of take-out-and-delivery—and permits her to frequently but safely wander off into various tangents related to the cookie. There are satisfying minihistories on the relationship between Jews and Chinese food and a biography of the real General Tso, but Lee also pries open factoids and tidbits of American culture that eventually touch on large social and cultural subjects such as identity, immigration and nutrition. Copious research backs her many lively anecdotes, and being American-born Chinese yet willing to scrutinize herself as much as her objectives, she wins the reader over. Like the numbers on those lottery fortunes, the book's a winner. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School—Lee takes readers on a delightful journey through the origins and mysteries of the popular, yet often overlooked, world of the American Chinese food industry. Crossing dozens of states and multiple countries, the author sought answers to the mysteries surrounding the shocking origins of the fortune cookie, the inventor of popular dishes such as chop suey and General Tso's chicken, and more. What she uncovers are the fascinating connections and historical details that give faces and names to the restaurants and products that have become part of a universal American experience. While searching for the "greatest Chinese restaurant," readers are taken on a culinary tour as Lee discovers the characteristics that define an exceptional and unique Chinese dining experience. Readers will learn about the cultural contributions and sacrifices made by the Chinese immigrants who comprise the labor force and infrastructure that supports Chinese restaurants all over the world. This title will appeal to teens who are interested in history, Chinese culture, and, of course, cuisine. Recommend it to sophisticated readers who revel in the details and history that help explain our current global culture, including fans of Thomas L. Friedman's The World Is Flat (Farrar, 2006) and Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner's Freakonomics (Morrow, 2006).—Lynn Rashid, Marriots Ridge High School, Marriotsville, MD
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

More About the Author

Jennifer 8. Lee is a journalist and founder of Plympton, a literary studio. She was a metropolitan reporter at The New York Times, where she has worked for many years. She harbors a deep obsession for Chinese food, the product of which is The Fortune Cookie Chronicles (Twelve, 2008), which explores how Chinese food is all-American.At the Times, she has written about poverty, the environment, crime, politics, and technology. She has been called, by NPR, a "conceptual scoop artist." One of her better known articles is on the Man Dates, and also on the fastest growing baby name in the history of America.She was born and raised in New York City, attending Hunter College Elementary School and Hunter College High School for a total of 14 years. She majored in applied math and economics at Harvard, where she also angsted a lot about The Harvard Crimson, a fabulous start-up magazine called Diversity & Distinction, and the Asian American Association. After college, she fled to China and spent a year at Beijing University studying international relations. She has a younger sister named Frances (foreign exchange programmer) and a younger brother named Kenneth (actuary). If you string their first initials together, it spells JFK, which their parents tease is the airport they landed at when they first came to the United States. (though currently, JFK is her least favorite of the NYC airports).She has a purple stuffed hippo named Hubba Bubba who travels the world with her. She used to know how to solve a Rubiks Cube, though is a bit rusty now. And she has always harbored fantasies of being a fortune cookie message scribe. She lives in Harlem (about four blocks away from her parents). She makes great turkey fried dumplings (recipe from mom).She is a former member of the Poynter Institute National Advisory Board, a board member of the Asian American Writers Workshop, and has been featured in the Esquire Women We Love issue.

Customer Reviews

For those answers, it's worth reading the book.
Donald Mitchell
Jennifer 8 Lee read about the story and went on a quest to visit most of the Chinese restaurants where the fortune cookies had been purchase.
H. Laack
This book was so much fun to read and very informative.
Julie D. Kravetz

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

86 of 97 people found the following review helpful By Mark Greenbaum on March 2, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I was intrigued by this book when I read a glowing review of it on Yahoo news, and was able to finish it over several hours sitting in the local bookstore. Much like a fine Chinese meal, the Fortune Cookie Chronicles is fairly light, quite tasty, and in the end both filling and fulfilling. Because the book is so well written, it's a lot of fun and you'll learn more than you could have ever imagined about Chinese food in the United States (as well as elsewhere), something many of us -- myself included -- have long taken for granted.

The book traces the incredible history of Chinese food in the United States, with the author setting out to explore why it is so popular across the country. Along the way she is able to spin delicious yarns on such topics as the birth of General Tso's chicken (including a hilarious trip to the General's home town in rural China where absolutely no one has ever heard of the dish), the Japanese origins of the fortune cookie, the reasons for the Jewish love of Chinese cuisine, how human smuggling supplies the many thousands of Chinese workers who run Chinese restaurants across the country, and other areas.

One of the most fascinating things I learned from the book is that the Chinese food we all know and love barely resembles real Chinese food -- the type of food people eat in China. In traveling to China to sample and research food and culture across the large nation, the author herself was initially surprised by this, and as the book progresses the fact helps demonstrate how the development of Chinese(/American) food is symbolic of the broader change to the culture of Chinese people who have moved to and settled their families in America.

Indeed, more than being about the strange growth and metamorphosis of Chinese dishes in the U.S.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I knew that fortune cookies were not "real" Chinese food, as I knew that chop suey was an invention for American palettes. What I did not know, however, was the incredible back story behind each, as well as many of the other topics covered in this book.

While the material on fortune cookies and chop suey was interesting, it was the stories of how Chinese nationals (PRCs) will do whatever it takes to get to the United States and what that can entail that I found fascinating. I also was amazed that the area in China supplying the majority of restaurant workers has shifted over the years, and that the population of the region has shrunk so much that schools have closed.

Other interesting features in the book include how Chinese restaurants sprout up and how they are bought and sold in a near underground economy, how fights have broken out over soy sauce, how the little white bucket used for take out came about and why you rarely see it anywhere other than at Chinese restaurants, as well as more mundane topics about the food.

The author has an obvious passion for the subject, and covers it well. She writes well, and has a sense of humor about some of the items that is somewhat infectious. A very well written and researched book that I would recommend to anyone interested in food. It will certainly change the way you look at a Chinese restaurant the next time you eat at one!
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful By C. Thorpe on March 4, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This is one of those delightful books that tells you all sorts of "behind the scenes" secrets about a part of life that everyone knows about and takes for granted. But unlike a lot of tell-alls (think Fast Food Nation) that make you afraid of a product or industry, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles left me more in love with "Chinese food" than ever before.

Lee is a skilled journalist, and so the exposition of her insightful ideas is typically clear and crisp, yet never dry or academic. The pages come alive with clever witticisms (she compares General Tso to Colonel Sanders) and she evokes real people with real stories, like the entrepreneuse who introduced Chinese food delivery to New York, and the delivery man trapped in an elevator for days who couldn't speak enough English to get help via the intercom.

But the real fun of this book is learning about how what we think of as Chinese food isn't the food eaten in China; the cuisine served as "Chinese food" around the world is as much a mix of its Asian origins and its adopted home as the children of the hard-working immigrants who serve it up. Fortune cookies turn out to be as American as apple pie -- or probably more so, if you buy her argument: when was the last time you had apple pie, and when was the last time you had Chinese food?

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles isn't just about Chinese food. It shows us, through the stories of a ubiquitous cuisine and its subculture, the kinds of forces that make America what it is today, and continue to shape our world.

Full disclosure: although I do know the author, this review was unsolicited. I'm writing this for those who haven't had a friend already introduce this wonderful book to them!
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20 of 24 people found the following review helpful By R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on April 1, 2008
Format: Hardcover
"Our benchmark for Americanness is apple pie. But ask yourself: How often do you eat apple pie? How often do eat Chinese food?" That's what Jennifer 8. Lee (the 8 is a number that connotes prosperity for the Chinese) writes in _The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food_ (Twelve Books), and although "As American as apple pie" may never be replaced by "As American as Chinese food," she has an interesting point. It is a point made in many different ways in each chapter of her funny and enlightening book which is about what would be better called American Chinese food, a type of cuisine that is served all over the United States in more restaurants than McDonald's, Burger King, and KFC combined, and is also something you can find all over the world. I remember, for instance, fifteen years ago being in Amsterdam and going to a Chinese restaurant, and it was almost as if we had stepped into one on Main Street, USA. There were red and gold décor, pictures of dragons and waterfalls, pictures of the specialties above the register, a menu printed in black and red, with egg rolls, chop suey, and all the old favorites, and they all tasted just like home.

Lee is a New York Times reporter and an American-born Chinese who got intrigued by a 2005 Powerball lottery drawing when an unexpectedly high number of people got five of six numbers correct; they had picked the lucky numbers on from a fortune cookie. Because these cookies were distributed all over the US, there were winners all over, and Lee set out to visit the winners, their particular Chinese restaurants, and trace back to the factory that made the cookies and the people who wrote the fortunes. Among the "Chinese" foods described here, the cookie is one that didn't originate in America.
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