Cookie’s Fortune: How Chinese food became distinctly American

Chinese food has long been integrated into the American culture and dinner rotation — so much so, in fact, that Bush Senior and Junior have bulletproof glass installed at their local joint. New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee does justice to the taken-for-granted — and taken-advantage-of — Chinese food industry in her revealing The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food.

In exploring the origins of the fortune cookie, Lee traces its passage to ubiquitousness through factual and anecdotal information, following the ventures of the Chinese restaurant workers from their arrival to the United States to the proper empire that exists today.

Today, some 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the US outnumber McDonald’s, KFC, and Burger Kings combined. Writes Lee, “If an environment can support life, then, like bacteria, a Chinese restaurant will find it.” Chinese food has proven to be nothing if not adaptable, adjusting dishes to local taste and produce, from Louisiana’s Szechuan alligator to Philadelphia’s cheese-steak rolls. Beloved dishes like chop suey or General Tso’s chicken — as American as they are foreign — have become the norm, while the Chinese, like Lee’s parents, “inevitably ordered dishes that had eyeballs.”

China, with a record export of immigrants, intrinsically has a natural symbiotic relationship with the US and its record import of immigrants. “As much as the mainstream changes the immigrants, the immigrants change the mainstream,” reveals Lee. Despite the aberration between the food served here and in its native country, a cultural gap has long been merged.

The well-researched Fortune Cookie Chronicles focuses on the vast acts of cultural assimilation: From helping immigrant Jews feel Americanized, to the prominence of Starbucks’ soy lattes, America has become a “wok-fueled dream” and Chinese food the “most pervasive on the planet.” Historical efforts to purge the Chinese (Snake River Massacre of 1887, the Chinese Exclusion Act of the late 1800s) were thwarted by the humble industry their workers forged, eventually deemed non-threatening women’s work by the American machismo mentality.

But the creation of the empire was lined with sweat and blood. Their smuggled arrivals, costing them tens of thousands to slave on American soil, made figures like Sister Ping multimillionaires, perched atop “the apex of an international empire.” The everyday perils of Chinese food deliverymen, “one of the most vulnerable species in the urban eco-system,” are no easy reward, either. Writes Lee, “Death is only the lowest point in what is almost universally the miserable existence of a Chinese restaurant worker.”

Initiated as a study of the history and fate of the cookie’s cuisine, Lee’s journey spanning 23 countries in six continents becomes personal — and certainly for this reason is engaging and thorough.

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles depict modern America as not a melting pot, but a stir-fry: “Our ingredients remain distinct, but our flavors blend together in a sauce shared by all.” As a book about food, its lack of culinary description may leave the salivary glands unsatiated — but that’s forgivable, due to its focus on the cultural end, in which it leaves no stone unturned.

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