Reviewed by Steve Smith
“Ruth,” said Cecilia, “I think there is something you should know.”
“Yes?” I said.
Cecilia took a deep breath and said, “I am sorry to have to doubt you. But there are no armadillos in China.” She stared at me and said sharply, “Are you all right?”
It was a small thing. It was everything. Armadillos did not roam China; I could not believe anything I had been told.
(Ruth Reichl, Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table, p. 133)
Jennifer 8. Lee’s fascinating The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food begins as an investigation into why, at the end of March 2005, over 100 people won second-place prizes in Powerball … by playing their fortune cookie numbers. It turns into “Adventures in the World of Chinese Food”: Lee is searching for the truth behind the fortune cookie, but along the way she gets into such topics as
- Chinese delivery in New York (and the “menu wars” which led to signs throughout New York prohibiting menu dropoffs);
- the international controversy over the exact nature of soy sauce (in 2005, after much wrangling between Americans and Japanese, it was decided that whole soybeans are not needed for making soy sauce);
- the connections between the Jewish and Chinese communities in the United States (with a look at the Kosher Duck Crisis of 1989);
- the greatest Chinese restaurant not in China (New York? San Francisco? London? Tokyo? nope, it’s in a strip mall outside Vancouver, British Columbia);
- those cheap Chinatown buses running between various Northeastern cities (they’re not really for tourists, but to get workers from the Chinese community in New York to their jobs in other cities).
Much of what we Americans believe about Chinese food turns out to be just a bunch of stories: the reality is far more interesting, and somewhat sobering, since the story of Chinese food in America is also the story of the Chinese-American experience. Lee points out that in America, she is Chinese, but in China she is American; likewise, what is known as Chinese food here is elsewhere considered American-style Chinese food.
(A side note: Lee suggests a new metaphor for the “melting pot,” which I remember as being replaced in the 80s by the “salad bowl”—the “stir-fry,” in which we all remain distinct but still contribute to the “sauce” which joins us. I like it.)
Fortune cookies, it turns out, were never Chinese, and the fortunes haven’t been “Confucian” for a long time. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food closes with a visit to a small restaurant in New Mexico, where one cookie yielded a quote from The Empire Strikes Back—as Lee puts it, “Yoda our new Confucius is.”