'The Fortune Cookie Chronicles'

20080305-fortunecookie.jpgI never gave much thought to Chinese food before moving away from the Midwest. Hot and sour soup, chop suey, sweet, sweet General Tso's chicken—all followed by a fortune cookie—well, isn't that just what folks ate in China? After landing on the East Coast, I was shocked to discover my beloved crab rangoon missing from the menus of Chinese restaurants here.

"You do know those aren't authentically Chinese, don't you?" my girlfriend said after I had complained about the subject once too often. "Come on: cream cheese? Deep-fried in wonton skins? That's clearly American Chinese food."

After the scales had fallen from my eyes, I wondered what else on the menus of typical U.S. Chinese restaurants was invented for American tastes—and what, exactly, the story was behind crab rangoon. So when I learned in late 2005 that New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee had just signed a book deal to write The Fortune Cookie Chronicles—an account of Chinese food in America—I knew all I had to do was sit back and wait for it to come out.

20080305-rangoon.jpgWell, the book's out on shelves this week, and the first thing I did upon receiving it was page through for the chapter on crab rangoon (right). No dice. They're mentioned only in passing.

What the book does cover is almost everything else that has to do with Chinese food, from the origins of iconic American Chinese dishes (the aforementioned chop suey and General Tso's) to the immigrant experience to the search for the best Chinese restaurant in the world outside greater China, which takes Lee to Los Angeles, London, Dubai, Paris, Lima, Mumbai, and Jamaica, among other places (she finally finds it Vancouver, British Columbia).

This globe-hopping is reflected in the structure of the book, which jumps from thought to thought—sometimes jarringly, as when Lee switches from a breezy-sounding chapter on the links between Jewish and Chinese people to one about the plight of illegal immigrants aboard a ship that's been run aground. As such, Fortune Cookie Chronicles reads more like a collection of newspaper or magazine articles than a single cohesive volume. You could almost page to any chapter and read it on its own without sacrificing much in back story—not surprising given Lee's background in newspapers, where each article is by nature self-contained.

And for a book that centers on food, Lee's descriptions of the fare left me wanting more—particularly in the travelogue chapter, where she flies to all corners of the globe and writes more about the decor of the restaurants she visits than the food eaten. So don't buy this book if you're in the market for a where-to-eat guide—not that it claims to be one.

All that's not to say that there aren't any narrative arcs in the book or that it's not a fascinating read. The search for the true origins of the fortune cookie becomes the de facto theme, broken up into five chapters peppered throughout the book, and Lee deserves major props for finding what appears to be certain proof of where and when they first materialize. (If you thought California in the early 1900s, as I did, you'd be wrong.)

Apart from the fortune cookie hunt, the other truly interesting parts of the book for me ended up being those that dealt with the peripheral aspects of Chinese food—the chapter on the distinctive shape of Chinese take-out containers in the U.S. (right); the one on the little-known soy sauce trade war, which ended quietly and almost unnoticed in 2005; and the quirky chapter that covers who, exactly, writes the fortunes that end up in your cookies.

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