Back in December, when I was attending the opening of the 2nd Ave Deli, I met a reporter from the New York Times named Jennifer 8 Lee. She was putting together the story on the deli’s return to Manhattan, and we soon got to talking about my book and her passion for Chinese food. As I talked about the format of the upcoming Save the Deli book, she told me excitedly about her own upcoming work, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. It turns out that Ms. Lee and I were in many ways kindred spirits. In many ways she is my Chinese counterpart: more studious, more accomplished, and more inclined to each chicken feet than to have matzo balls. But still, her blog www.fortunecookiechronicles.com amazingly paralells this site, and her book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is in many ways the Sunday night version of Save the Deli.
Jennifer 8. Lee
Jennifer was kind enough to send me an advance copy of the book last month, which I devoured over the course of a single day when I was battling the flu. Like many sumptuous feasts I’ve devoured at Real Peking, New Ho King, King Noodle (and various other Kings), it is a work that satisfies in every possible way…full of spice, mystery, newly discovered tastes, and a burning desire to explore further. Though it begins as a look into lottery winners who picked numbers from fortune cookies, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles seeks to place the Chinese restaurant in its proper context within North American and global society. Chinese food is ubiquitous and universal, one of the first ethnic eateries, and one whose tastes are tied to the social, political, and economic conditions of both China and the diaspora. In it, we learn the origins of dishes like chop suey and General Tso’s Chicken, but also of the mystery behind the fortune cookie, which came to America by way of an unlikely route.
Here’s an excerpt from the initial chapter of the book:
“I am obsessed with Chinese restaurants. Like many Americans, I first discovered them in my childhood. I grew up during the 1980s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where Broadway is sometimes called Szechuan Alley for the density of Chinese restaurants along it. My parents had first settled in the area when my father was studying for his Ph.D. at Columbia University; because my mom never learned to drive, our family never moved out of the city. As a result, I was raised not too far in time and place from many of the changes that revolutionized Chinese food in the United States.
My siblings and I are known as ABCs, American-born Chinese. We’re also known as bananas (yellow on the outside but white on the inside) and Twinkies (which has more of a pop-culture but processed ring to it). There are a lot of inside jokes among immigrant families. My family even has one embedded in the children’s names. My parents named me Jennifer; my sister is Frances; my brother is Kenneth. If you string together our first initials, you get JFK, which, my parents tease, is the airport they landed at when they first came to America.
My parents arrived in the United States courtesy of the Immigration Reform Act of 1965, which opened the doors to educated and skilled workers like my father and dramatically shifted the balance of immigration away from Europe. Countries like Taiwan, South Korea, and India stood ready to offer the best products of their meritocratic educational systems.
My mom took care of the home and did most of the cooking, while my father worked on Wall Street. But like many families in our area, we’d order Chinese takeout when she was too busy to cook. As a girl I would run down to the neighborhood Chinese restaurant with a crisp twenty-dollar bill in my pocket. Barely tall enough to see past the counter, I’d solemnly order dishes from the big white menu, using the Chinese names that my mom had carefully taught me. (Without exception, the vocabulary words that Chinese-American kids—and immigrant kids in general—know best are almost always related to food.)
Then I’d lug home my treasure: a plastic bag of steaming, generously stuffed trapezoidal white cartons. Our family gathered around the table as we pulled out the boxes, each one bursting with the potential of anonymity. Out came chopsticks, the little clear packets of black soy sauce, and crunchy fortune cookies. Each untucking of the lid released a surge of aroma and a sight to spark the appetite. Would it be the amber-colored noodles of roast pork lo mein? The lightly sweetened crispiness of General Tso’s chicken nestled in a bed of flash-cooked broccoli? Or the spicy red chili oils of mapo tofu? Virginal white rice would be doused with steaming sauces, the mingling of simmered soy sauce, piquant vinegar, slivers of ginger, and fragrant garlic. The Chinese food begged to be mixed together: sweet, sour, salty, and savory flavors layering upon one another. They tasted even better the next day when the leftovers were reheated. We’d break open the fortune cookies for the message inside, rarely eating the cookie. The cheerfully misspelled, awkwardly phrased, but wise words of the Chinese fortune cookie sages gave me comfort. My parents’ bookshelves were lined with Chinese philosophical classics like Confucius’s Analects and the I Ching. For a girl who could not untangle the thicket of Chinese characters in those opaque and mysterious books, the little slips of insight represented the distillation of hundreds of years of Chinese wisdom.
Then came a shocking revelation.
Fortune cookies weren’t Chinese.”
The chapters I found the most compelling were the detailed explanations of the lines that bring Fukienese immigrants to New York, by way of a global network of deadly smugglers, domestic snakeheads, and perilous voyages. Poor peasants save up tens of thousands of dollars in order to send relatives to New York, where they will work in the kitchens on Mott and Canal streets, until they walk into small job offices under the Manhattan bridge, pick a job from a board, and take Chinese run buses accross the continent, to work at a small Chinese buffet in Montana. Her story of one such family’s journey, including relocation, hardships, and struggles is simply heartbreaking. In these reported sections, Lee’s book shines like the glutinous sheen in many Chinese sauces. It packs a Kung Pow wallop, where her daft reporting skills are clearly on display.
Another section that Lee breezes through is her voyage to find the best Chinese restaurant outside of China. She visits San Francisco, London, Paris, Dubai, Tokyo, Seoul, Lima, Singapore, Brazil, Jamaica, Mumbai, Rome, New York and LA to experience meals both lavish and humble, simple and elaborate. Though I can take some pride in where her favorite is located (hint), to me it was more interesting to see how local forces shaped the flavor of these different incarnations of Chinese cuisine. I only wish she’d spent more page space describing her international exploits, rather than have them crammed into one chapter.
What emerges in the end is not unlike a sumptuous Chinese banquet itself. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles provides a wide and dizzying array of flavor, texture, and color to its readers. You not only get a peek inside the kitchens of Chinatowns, but a look at the connection they have within North American culture. One of the most telling chapters concerns Jews and Chinese food, a subject I’ve written about before. Like deli, Chinese food is more than simply a meal. Whether you are enjoying the artful dim sum of chef Terrence Chan at Lai Wah Heen, or whether it’s simply sunday night takeout boxes of egg rolls and fried rice from China House, you are connecting with a cultural icon while it shapes you and you shape it. Chinese restaurants in Canada and the United States are more numerous than the largest fast food chains combined. It is both foreign and domestic, strange and comforting, and ultimately essential for anyone with half a taste bud to their name.
Buy this book today. You won’t regret it. Until Save the Deli comes out late next year it will be the most important thing you read besides the bible.