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'Fortune Cookie Chronicles': 40,000 egg rolls... to go

A New York Times reporter goes global, tracing the origins of America's Chinese food.

By Terry Hong / March 18, 2008

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food By Jennifer 8. Lee Twelve 308 pp., $24.99

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Luddite me made a surprisingly funny joke to two techies after reading Jennifer 8. Lee's delightful The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. "McDonald's is to Microsoft as Chinese restaurants are to Linux," I chirped confidently. My friends at first couldn't believe what had just come out of my mouth – technology and I do not get along – and then they couldn't stop laughing.

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For those of you still scratching your head, here's Lee's more thorough explanation: "If McDonald's is the Windows of the dining world (where one company controls the standards), then Chinese restaurants are akin to the Linux operating system, where a decentralized network of programmers contributes to the underlying source code. The code is available for anyone to use, modify, or redistribute freely."

Indeed, in Chinese restaurants across the United States and beyond, regardless of size, location, or ownership, you can count on recognizing the same reliable fare: fried rice, chow mein, General Tso's chicken, and, of course, a fortune cookie at meal's end.

Is this why there are more Chinese restaurants in the US than all the McDonald's, Burger Kings, and Kentucky Fried Chickens combined? Is there a real-life General Tso and why did his chicken cross the ocean? And just where did that crispy little cookie really come from?

Armed with her wunderkind background as a New York Times reporter since the age of 24 – not to mention her Harvard degree in both applied mathematics and economics – Lee begins her quest following the improbable story of more than 100 (yes, 100) Powerball lottery winners in the US who in March 2005 had all chosen their winning numbers from fortune cookies.

One thing led to another and Lee's nationwide search for a hundred-plus small slips of paper grew and grew, until suddenly she was on a globetrotting mission to discover the truth about fortune cookie origins, which then morphed again into a quest for the who-what-where-and-why of the ubiquity of Chinese food in America.

The one word that sums up Lee's findings on her rollicking adventures is "ersatz." That's not meant as a judgment, just a statement of fact. What we eat (and how we eat) in American Chinese restaurants is anything but "real Chinese food," Lee, a second generation Chinese-American discovers. "It's American. It just looks Chinese."

For one thing, there's no actual soy in American soy sauce – and the vast majority of those clear packets with brown liquid are manufactured in a Jewish, family-owned factory in New Jersey.