'Fortune Cookie Chronicles': 40,000 egg rolls... to go
A New York Times reporter goes global, tracing the origins of America's Chinese food.
(Page 2 of 2)
Even the Chinese takeout containers – originally used to hold shucked oysters in the early 20th century – are available only in the US. They're not even sold in neighboring Canada. (And how about this for Chinese restaurant trivia: In takeout boxes on the East Coast of the US, wires run the short length of the box, while on the West Coast they run the long way.)Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But most important, Lee tells us, fortune cookies do not exist in China – unless they've been imported from these American shores.
"The Fortune Cookie Chronicles" is packed full of such ah-ha tidbits, delicious secrets, and fun facts. But where Lee shines most is in the narration of the stories of the real-life people she meets on her worldwide discovery tour.
She travels to Fujian Province, "the single largest exporter in the world of Chinese restaurant workers today." She tells the harrowing story of the six-year odyssey of Michael Chen and his quest to make it to the US. (He was a passenger on the Golden Venture, the ill-fated vessel which, in June 1993, ferried almost 300 illegal immigrants from China to the US only to run aground on New York's Rockaway Beach.)
Today, Chen owns a 150-seat Chinese restaurant in an upscale suburb of Columbus, Ohio.
Lee humanizes her numbers-filled reportage of the life-threatening dangers Chinese restaurant delivery staff face with a day-by-day account of a single worker who seems to have disappeared into thin air. She follows the plight of a fractured immigrant family who settle in a tiny Georgia town and cling to ownership of the lone Chinese restaurant which they blindly hope will provide them with life and liberty in their adopted land.
In the midst of telling the stories of others, Lee ultimately discovers her own: "This book began as a quest to understand Chinese food. But three years, six continents, twenty-three countries, and forty-two states later, I realize it was actually a personal journey to understand myself."
If America began as a melting pot, she decides, and more recently evolved into a tossed salad, then, in the 21st century, "We are a stir-fry; our ingredients remain distinct, but our flavors blend together in a sauce shared by all."
Hungry yet? Go get Lee's book, order in from or go to your favorite neighborhood Chinese restaurant, get comfy, and get ready to feast.
Oh, and that "8" in Lee's name? It means "prosperity" in Chinese.
• Terry Hong is media arts consultant at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program.