The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food
The prologue to The Fortune Cookie Chronicles lays out a pretty intriguing premise: In 2005 when an unusually large number of people matched five of six Powerball numbers, it was discovered that they had all played numbers they got in a fortune cookie. This event in turn spurred Chinese-American journalist Jennifer 8. Lee—yes, her middle name is a number—to embark on a global journey to investigate fortune cookies and, eventually, the whole of Chinese cuisine itself. Lee’s dedication and research skills are undeniable, but her insights are few, and an annoyingly small amount of her prose is dedicated to the actual topic of food. In what should have been a transporting account of what was surely an amazing adventure, Fortune ultimately fails to deliver much more than essays on obscure (but fascinating) past events and countless doting character sketches.
The book is actually a collection of more or less self-contained treatises rather than a linear narrative, with sporadic fortune cookie-related sections mixed in to serve as a tenuous binder. The chapters are arranged with neither temporal nor thematic logic, which gives the volume a scattershot feel. Within chapters, too, Lee flits giddily from topic to digression and back. Her nimble and engaging style is marred by this lack of focus. Coupled with some random, contrived-sounding nerd-culture references—“[The Chinese] wrote in an alphabetless language that must have seemed as bizarre then as Star Trek’s Klingon does today”—and groan-inducing metaphors (“bugs splattered across my windshield like egg whites dropped in soup”), this all leaves you with the vague sense of reading your teenage niece’s blog.
Lee settles into a keener tone after the first few chapters, deftly and thoroughly fleshing out interesting incidents and stories illustrating the complex, intimate, unsung ties that Chinese food has to America and American culture. She deserves kudos for thoughtfully and soberly exposing the disturbing, hidden universe occupied by Chinese restaurant workers. Her expository is skillful and detailed, but she is unable to apply the final touch that gives meaning to the stories, those bits of clarity you expect from an author who has the edge of firsthand experience.
After an engrossing discussion of the close link between Jews and Chinese food, Lee asks one of the top Chinese restaurant consultants in the country—who is also Jewish—to explain why. Condensing what she herself acknowledges was a wealth of culinary expertise, his position is stated as, “Jews are concerned with value.” Lee then travels to Kaifeng in northern China to visit a Chinese Jewish woman. Months of research and thousands of miles culminates with this “Buddhist koan-like response”: “Because Chinese food tastes good.” Even more frustrating is what should have been the climax of this book, Lee’s intercontinental search for the finest Chinese restaurant in the world. Spanning all of a single chapter, she describes everything but the food she had on this quest, and concludes that the best is located outside Vancouver. In her words: “What clinched it for me? Zen’s half-price special was a bargain.” Gee, thanks.