Tuesday, May 06, 2008

(05.06.08) Recommends:

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, by Jennifer 8. Lee.

If you monitor the world of books (or, if you're like us and pay attention to a few sources that monitor the world of books for us), you most likely haven't gotten through a book-reviewing source in the past few months without seeing a review of this book.

The idea for it began with a March 2005 Powerball drawing. Powerball statisticians expected there to be 3.7 second place winners for this particular drawing (second place meaning correctly picking 5 of the 6 numbers drawn). Instead, there were 110. The winners came from every state in the country, but of them 104 had picked the same six numbers. What's more, under the rules of Powerball, if 110 people had all won first place (i.e., correctly picked all 6 numbers), the jackpot would just be split 110 ways. However, there is no such limitation on second place -- Powerball had to pay out 110 fixed amounts. And they suspected fraud. So, one by one, they interviewed the winners. What they found were 104 people who had put their Powerball number picking faith in the same string of numbers received from the fortune of fortune cookies.

From this story, Jennifer 8. Lee traces back the fortunes to the Chinese restaurants and develops her thesis that Chinese food is now more American than apple pie. Along the way for her search for the lucky fortune cookies, she tells the story of the modern Chinese restaurant in America. The history of fortune cookies -- where they're from, how they're made, who writes the fortunes, intellectual property litigation of the fortune cookie. The history of those stacks of Chinese delivery menus piled up in the corner that anybody who has ever rented an apartment has experienced. The history of chop suey. The history of General Tso's chicken (and why nobody in his home village has ever heard of it). Why, of all Americans, Jews have a particularly strong attachment to Chinese food (and what happens when the only Kosher Chinese restaurant in town might not be, well, kosher). The path -- almost always illegal and harrowing -- of the average Chinese worker to an American Chinese restaurant -- first from their home village in China to New York City, then to points throughout the entire U.S. methodically plotted by companies whose sole purpose is to track the best places for Chinese restaurants to be located (and the myriad struggles faced by the immigrants once they arrive in the US). The history of Chinese delivery and take-out and those ubiquitous take-out containers. The history of soy sauce, and a search for the greatest Chinese restaurant in the world.

The book is as entertaining as it is ambitious. It's like a mix between The Tipping Point, Fast Food Nation, your favorite episode of This American Life and just sitting around with your most interesting friend over Chinese take-out and tall bottles of Tsingtao.* Our biggest complaint is that it's only 300 pages -- it could easily be three times that length to allow some of the chapters to be explored a bit deeper and we're still sure it could be read in two days, even at that length.

The book is a charming page-turner and we can't wait to see what Jennifer 8. Lee comes up with next.

*An interesting aside. We wrote this post yesterday morning but didn't have time to post it until this morning. And in between we, by complete coincidence, actually had dinner with an interesting friend -- rather than Chinese, it was done-up up pub food in the LA via NYC style; rather than Tsingtao it was a "beer flight" of yummy beers. And this friend, by further coincidence, informed us that she wrote for her college newspaper with Jennifer 8. Lee. Blogging, like Chinese food, has mysterious powers.

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