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87 of 98 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting little book
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...
Published on March 2, 2008 by Mark Greenbaum

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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Take-out observations on an American obsession...
Jennifer Lee has written an engaging book on the phenomenon of Chinese food in America. It is filled with factoids that most likely you did not know before, such as the fact that there about twice as many Chinese restaurants in America as there are McDonalds.

She delves into such arcana as the origin of General Tso's chicken, the history and anatomy of fortune...
Published on June 23, 2008 by Kevin Quinley


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87 of 98 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting little book, March 2, 2008
By 
Mark Greenbaum (South Orange, New Jersey United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
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., this book is about how America has impacted Chinese-American culture and vice versa. The fact that Chinese dishes have been altered in order to fit the tastes of Americans reflects how many Chinese-American citizens, the author included, have culturally changed from their own parents and grandparents. While many Chinese-American dishes beloved here are totally unknown abroad -- and often even disliked by Chinese people in the Far East; such as General Tso's chicken -- their popularity has spawned the worldwide creation of a unique amalgam of cuisine that is both Chinese and American and not solely representative of either group alone (the brief section on P.F. Chang's as a form of upscale American-Chinese food is fascinating and exactly on point of this phenomenon). Furthermore, as the book shows, the popularity of Chinese food in the U.S. spreads across all of the states, cultures, ethnicities, and religions. The author does a fantastic job of dissecting the sheer love of Chinese food in all 50 states, and the history behind that astonishing popularity.

Upon finishing I was somewhat amazed that someone could have spent so much time and effort researching Chinese food, but it is clear that the author -- Jennifer 8. Lee of the New York Times -- has a passion for the subject, as well as an interest in exploring her own identity as a Chinese-American. Admittedly, while I read the Times every single day and have long noticed Ms. Lee's byline, all I could remember about her work was her cool middle name (perhaps the neatest middle initial and name since Harry S Truman). I will look out for her more now, as she is a superb writer and able to speak with a witty and lively prose. I am sure her future books will be equally as compelling.

If I can make a small complaint about the book, it probably goes on for a bit too long, ending at just under 300 pages. While this does not seem like much, I think the author could have cut a lot of the material that was included in the later chapters. Nevertheless, this is still a fun book to read, and a good gift.

Four stars.
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34 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Confucius Say: You Will Look at a Chinese Restaurants Differently After Reading This Book, March 5, 2008
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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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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Delightful!, March 4, 2008
By 
C. Thorpe (Lincoln, Mass., USA) - See all my reviews
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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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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Authentic Inathenticity, April 1, 2008
"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. The cookies originated in Japan, and are not so ancient as Confucius, arising sometime in the nineteenth century. There is a whole chapter here ("The Long March of General Tso") about my favorite Chinese dish, the general's chicken. It will not surprise you, perhaps, that the general did not invent the chicken recipe, but it may be more Chinese than chop suey, which is unknown in China and may have originated as a joke by a Chinese chef in America who was told to concoct something that would "pass as Chinese". General Zuo (a more modern transliteration of "Tso") Zongtang is a historical figure venerated by the Chinese for his gifts as a military leader. He died in 1885, but his name lives on because of his chicken. When Lee goes to the general's ancestral village in rural Hunan, she finds that the village is proud of its famous son as a general, but has no idea about his branching off into victuals. Lee showed a waitress at a restaurant there a picture of General Tso's chicken, getting the reply, "It doesn't look like chicken." "No one here eats this," says an old farmer. When she explains that many Americans know the general's name, one villager is not surprised. "He was very talented. A lot of people respected and admired him." Lee didn't have the heart to say that no one in America knows him except for his chicken dish. It's not even his dish, but may be closer to General Ching's chicken, and Ching was the mentor to Tso. And even Ching's is not close. A Hunan chef is dismayed by the taste: "The taste of Hunan cuisine is not sweet... That's not right. This isn't authentic."

He is missing the point! There isn't much authentic about American Chinese food except that it has a wonderful uniformity wherever it is served. You can count on it. A foreign service officer serving in Iraq, who maybe ought to be trying exotic kebabs and hummus, says, "It's a taste of home. What could be more American than beer and take-out Chinese?" There are wonderful surprises here about this favorite food. Lee traces how immigrants come, mostly from Fuzhou, and are posted to different locales in the United States (some of this story is pretty grim). She shows that Chinese take out, the grandfather of all takeouts, was started in 1976 in New York by an enterprising woman whose restaurant was about to go under. The soy sauce packets you get with your meal probably contain no soy. There is a hilarious story of a kosher Chinese restaurant ("Moshe Dragon") which caused an uproar serving non-kosher duck to its customers, a story of religious scandal and destroyed reputations. Memoir, history, and sociological study, these chronicles are a delight, and if you are like me, you won't be able to get through the book without ordering from your local Chinese restaurant. Explain that you insist on the authentic chicken of General Tso.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Delightful Look at "Authentic" Food Culture, October 14, 2008
By 
Meghan Buchanan (Bloominton, IN USA) - See all my reviews
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In The Fortune Cookies Chronicles (2008), Jennifer 8. Lee explores how dishes like these and Chinese food in general has "ceased to be ethnic" (19) and yet arguably and identifiably Chinese at the same. As one American military officer in Iraq noted, "What could be more American than beer and take-out Chinese?" (26). In order to understand how Chinese food can be both Chinese and American at the same time, Lee takes the readers throughout the United States and China to find the origins of some of our most popular dishes, and she travels around the world to find the "greatest" Chinese restaurant in the world.
Rather than a standard history of the little cuisine that could, Lee explores how Chinese food pushes the boundaries of how we define concepts like assimilation and authenticity (256-257). Lee posits that the old definitions of assimilation which emphasize minority populations blending into majority populations, the success of Chinese food demonstrates that convergence is the key to assimilation. And what actually constitutes authenticity? Potatoes are a staple in Irish food, but they are undeniably a New World food. Indian curries are enhanced by New World chilies. Lee considers all of these examples (including Chinese dishes like General Tso's chicken) to be "native foreign dishes" (257). Foreign in their inspiration, native in their creation. There are reasons why foods lend themselves so easily to blending of cuisines and ingredients. Lee points out that when people first come into contact with each other, language may be a barrier, but food lends itself immediately to opinion and evaluation (258). Food practices also tend to be one of the aspects of heritage that survives culture contact. Lee suggests that her grandchildren someday may not speak Chinese, but they will know how fry dumplings (258). Rather than the melting pot analogy that all school children are taught, stir-fry may be more apt; "our ingredients remain distinct, but our flavors blend together in a sauce shared by all" (259).
I found Lee's writing to be accessible and entertaining while at the same time theoretically interesting. While much of the book explores particular dishes, controversies, and the migration of Chinese restaurant workers, Lee keeps all of these topics grounded in her efforts to understand how food can be authentic and foreign at the same time. Lee does not hit the reader over the head with anthropological and sociological theory, but the concepts are there, grounded in the lived experiences of the people that Lee interviews and describes.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating look at the history of the fortune cookie and more, March 26, 2008
The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8. Lee is the author's fascinating quest to discover the true history of the fortune cookie. Fortune cookies, ubiquitous at Chinese restaurants, are crunchy with a slightly vanilla flavor; this unassuming cookie wouldn't seem to bear up under the weight of an entire book, but Lee makes this book delectable. Want info on the Kosher Duck Scandal of 1989 or about the Chinese immigrants aboard the Golden Venture? Lee has a wide variety of stories that she dug up in her search for the origin of the cookie. Chapters about the cookie are alternated with stories about Chinese immigration throughout the history of the US, how Chinese restaurants have become international, where did General Tso's Chicken come from, and so many more. Lee's book is like a great Chinese buffet. There are lots of selections to choose from, and there's just enough of each to satisfy without a glut of information. Lee's stories about the Chinese immigrants who work in and own Chinese restaurants across the country are the strongest. The images of ghost towns in China filled with huge homes built with the money sent home, but have no residents, streets empty of those of working age, and a school where the older children are taught just enough English to work in the restaurants, show an entire society built on food that no one in China actually recognizes. The best of this genre of book not only educate the reader, but teach the writer something about his/herself as well, and Lee succeeds on both fronts as she connects with her Chinese roots. The mystery of the origin of the cookie is solved in an unexpected way. This book is a must read!
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Take-out observations on an American obsession..., June 23, 2008
Jennifer Lee has written an engaging book on the phenomenon of Chinese food in America. It is filled with factoids that most likely you did not know before, such as the fact that there about twice as many Chinese restaurants in America as there are McDonalds.

She delves into such arcana as the origin of General Tso's chicken, the history and anatomy of fortune cookies, the making of those trapezoidal carry-out food boxes, why Jewish people especially love Chinese food and a stroll through the best Chinese restaurants in the world.

It would be tempting and a cliché to say that, thirty minutes after reading it, you're hungry for more. Alas, that line has apparently been taken by a prior reviewer.

If you enjoy Chinese food, you will enjoy "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles."

Confucius say, "You have a fun reading ahead of you..."
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Chinese food - the good, bad, and ugly, August 20, 2011
Like the author, I was often puzzled as a child why the food in Chinese restaurants was nothing like the food I grew up eating in Taiwan and at home. So I thought this book was be perfect for examining the evolution of Chinese food into Chinese-American food.

This book was very informative and had a lot of interesting trivia and brief history tidbits. This book was mainly a light read, but there are certainly dark aspects connected to the current Chinese restaurant industry (as evident in the chapters "Golden Venture," "Mystery of Missing Chinese Deliveryman," and "Waizhou, USA"). I liked her self reflections, probably because they echoed mine.

The reason I did not love the book was because I did not think it was well-organized. I thought she jumped from topic to topic. Some chapters would tie back into the fortune cookie story, others wouldn't. I think she needed a central theme to tie in her varied chapters.

The chapter named "Greatest Chinese Restaurant in the World" was probably the worst chapter. Her criteria on defining the greatest were paradoxical - first, the Chinese cuisine had to be adapted to that certain part of the world properly, yet they cannot be "Pan-Asian" or what she wrote "nothing 'fusion-y'." Maybe it's because I'm not a foodie or a chef, but I thought fusion was the combination of other ethnic cuisines, thereby making her first criteria contradictory. For instance, she readily admits that in Mumbai, she tried the "Indian-Chinese fusion fare." And surprisingly the one she deemed the Greatest Restaurant is actually a fusion restaurant.

One thing that surprised me was that she wrote couple times that a lot Chinese restaurants were dives. Instead of elucidating this, she wondered why Chinese restaurant were associated with being dives. Certainly if she had gone to China or Taiwan herself, she should've seen that native restaurants were really "dives." Chinese people do not need the glitz and glamor, and they do not to eat with the eyes. To make a restaurant fancy and the food pretty is a new and very Western concept.

I thought the ending would have been perfect with the self reflections at the end of the chapter "American Stir-fry." I was surprised to turn the page and see more chapters, two more actually. And when I did finally come to the end, I was shocked to the see her Acknowledgment section. Wow, did this book end abruptly. But it also tied into the fact that there was no centralized theme to conclude.

Overall, I would recommend the book for the brief history lessons, interesting trivia, and bringing to light the plight of Chinese workers. But read it like a magazine - a chapter here or there. This way, you won't get annoyed by the lack of centralizing theme or the disorganization.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly entertaining romp into a world that we are familiar with but don't really know, March 23, 2008
Fortune Cookie Chronicles is just terrific. I read it in two sittings (I did get up to use the toilet, so I don't know if that is really two sittings or not).

Jennifer 8. Lee tracked down so much cool information. My wife is Japanese and we lived in Japan for 7 years and Hong Kong for two. We've lived in the Boston area for more than ten years and eat Chinese a few times a month. I thought I knew about Chinese food. Ha! I didn't know squat.

What's so great about the book is that it is an entertaining and well written romp into a world we are all familiar with, but until now nobody really knew that well.
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13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Insightful Book, March 2, 2008
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I do have to admit that I am in the book as inventing the Fortune Album, but I also do have to admit that I found this to be a fascinating and revealing book about a myriad of topics relating to Chinese cuisine, the fortune cookie, and about Chinese culture in general.

My favorite Chapters in the book are as follows:

Chapter 8: The Golden Venture: Restaurant Workers to Go - in which Jennifer describes the process of immigrating to the United States for the sole purpose of working in the Chinese restaurant industry.

Chapter 12: The Soy Sauce Trade Dispute - How the largest manufacturer of packeted soy sauce does not use soybeans in their product!

Chapter 16: Tsujiura Senbei - The real nation that invented the fortune cookie and how the Chinese "stole" it and marketed it to what it is today.

But to be honest, I found the whole book to be a true labor of love, from describing how the concept of delivery of Chinese food came about, how the Chinese came to own so many restaurants and laundromats, the Chop Suey revolution, the state of the Fortune Cookie industry, why Jewish people love Chinese food, the discovery of the Greatest Chinese Restaurant in the World, and the contrast between Chinese parents and American parents.

So go buy the book. It takes about 4 nights before going to bed to finish it, and you will find it very educational and fun.

Congratulations, Jennifer, for spending a monumental amount of time, energy, and effort in writing such an excellent book.
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The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food
The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food by Jennifer 8. Lee (Paperback - March 23, 2009)
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