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Bookmarks Issue: 
34-May-June-2008
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Adventures in the World of Chinese Food

A-The Fortune Cookie ChroniclesChinese restaurants in the United States outnumber all the McDonalds, Burger King, and KFC franchises combined. While that statistic may at first seem improbable, most Americans will also recognize it as a logical necessity in a world where a strip mall just can’t be a strip mall without a Chinese lunch buffet. Lee, a second-generation Chinese American, travels across the United States and to 23 other countries to discover how we came to inherit our peculiar hybrid national cuisine, which has little to nothing to do with traditional Chinese cuisine (as exhibited by Lee’s attempts to track down General Tso). Sampling selections as diverse as the origins of the free paper menu, the role of fortune cookies in the lottery, restaurant labor, and American Jews’ deep cultural yearning for takeout, Lee assembles a menu as exotic as it is familiar.
Twelve. 320 pages. $24.99. ISBN: 0446580074

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Backed by exhaustive research, investigation, and a clear and detailed prose style, the book delves … into the twinned history of 20th Century American Chinese immigration and food. It is a study of lives often overlooked: the immigrant who takes your phone order, the busboy who clears away your hot-and-sour soup bowl, the guy who brings mu shu pork to your door." Bich Minh Nguyen

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"With her cultural background as a Chinese American, her craft as a reporter for the New York Times, her evident love of food and her quirky sense of wonder, Lee is our trusted guide. … The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is a deeply enjoyable meal, for anyone who likes talking or thinking about food." Seth Faison

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s a journey into the complex culture, history and economics that inform any Chinese restaurant in any town. … Lee (whose middle name ‘8’ connotes prosperity in Chinese) does so in a richly rewarding and entertaining work that answers just about everything you ever wanted to know about Chinese food—and then some." John C. Ensslin

Hartford Courant 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The book is not a literary masterpiece—portions are repetitious, the organizational structure seems murky and the breezy tone is occasionally cloying. Fortunately, none of those minor problems sinks the superb content served up." Steve Weinberg

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Amusing as such diversions are, Lee’s book is more serious than its jolly subtitle suggests, exposing some very ugly sides of the business. … Inevitably, Lee’s investigative trail leads back to the mass arrival of Chinese immigrants in California during the Gold Rush, when they became known as Celestials because they seemed so otherworldly." Jane and Michael Stern

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Lee promises procedural journalism, a how-and-here’s-why book like the work of Michael Pollan and Elizabeth Royte, but instead delivers an intoxicating ethnographic study of the history and culture of American Chinese cuisine. No, this wasn’t exactly what we ordered nor what it looked like on the menu. But we support her digressions because the book we got is probably just as much fun as the one she promised." Kevin Smokler

Critical Summary

We’re in something of a golden age for food journalism, with exposés like Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, odysseys like Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, histories like Mark Kurlansky’s Salt, and quirky memoirs like Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is a bit of each, and reviewers held it to similar standards. Most critics felt that it made the cut as a unique exploration of food, culture, immigration, and identity. A few critics, however, while thoroughly enjoying the book’s quirky, fascinating anecdotes and histories, felt like there was something missing. Lee, well-known for both her city-beat reporting for The New York Times and her salonlike parties, could have made herself a stronger character in the book to give it more unity. Despite this complaint, every reviewer had to admit that something about the subject matter and its author was irresistible.