Book Review: The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

For Americans, Chinese food is ubiquitous.  We debate about authenticity and taste in Chinatown and in our favorite corner takeout joints.   I may prefer the subtle charms of hand-drawn noodles or the joyous free-for-all that is dim sum to a folded white box of General Tso’s Chicken– but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have General Tso’s for lunch yesterday.  We see Chinese restaurants everywhere, without giving them a second thought– the almost-identical menus, the red and gold signs, the isolated Chinese families who are sometimes the only immigrants in town.

Jennifer 8. Lee, a Chinese-American New Yorker and beat reporter for the New York Times, tackles the question of Chinese food in America in all its glory in The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. It’s an exuberant book, enthusiastic and well-researched, and Lee’s passion for her material is evident on every page.

The scope of Lee’s research is astonishing.  She visits Chinese restaurants all over the world in search of the best one (sorry, no spoilers here).  She travels to China to visit General Tso’s home village, where the inhabitants are surprised to hear that his fame in the West revolves around a chicken dish they’ve never tasted.  She visits San Francisco and Japan in her efforts to track down the origins of the fortune cookie.  And she delves deep into the world of “snakeheads,” the smugglers who charge would-be immigrants their life’s savings for dangerous passage into the US and Europe, and compassionately relates the story of Michael, a Fujianese man who survived a shipwreck on his journey to New York.

What she finds is astonishing.  This isn’t food porn (though there are plenty of tasty descriptions), nor is it fluff (though it is a quick and enjoyable read).  It’s more like the Freakonomics of Chinese food.  Lee applies her crisp writing and sense of humor to the intersections of social justice, the immigrant experience, business, gastronomy, and my favorite topic, political economy.

For example:

Why are American Chinese restaurants’ menus all so similar, even though they’re not centralized?  McDonald’s strives for the kind of uniformity that the China Gardens and Golden Pandas of small towns across American seem to have achieved effortlessly.  Lee argues that Chinese restauranteurs have, in effect, been early adopters of crowdsourcing techniques.

Why are Chinese dishes in America so different from Chinese dishes in China?  (And why do people in China find them so unpalatable?)  Lee traces the history of Chinese cooking in America, from 19th-century mining camps to chop suey palaces, and shows the evolution of the cuisine as it gained popularity and adapted to American tastes.

Why are the delivery people from Chinese restaurants so routinely mugged, beaten and murdered?  What does this say about the position of Chinese immigrants in the US?

Why is Chinese food so popular among American Jews?  Lee explores a kashrut scandal that took place in a Washington, DC-area kosher Chinese duck restaurant and the effect it had on the community.

And the question that ties all of these questions together: What does it mean to be an American child of Chinese parents?  It’s the fortune cookie that brings this question to the fore for Lee:

Fortune cookies weren’t Chinese.

It was like learning I was adopted while being told there was no Santa Claus. How could that be? I had always believed in the crispy, curved, vanilla-flavored wafers with the slips inside.

It was through reading The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan when I was in middle school that I first became aware of the mass deception. In one tale, two Chinese women find jobs in a San Francisco fortune cookie factory, where one is utterly perplexed when she learns that the cookies and their cryptic messages are considered Chinese.

I asked my mom if she had known all along that fortune cookies weren’t Chinese. She shrugged. She said when she first got to the United States from Taiwan, she’d assumed they were from Hong Kong or mainland China. China is a large and fractured place. She had never been to mainland China. Neither had I.

Lee’s quest to understand the origins of the fortune cookie becomes a quest to understand her own origins, and she handles it with intelligence, compassion and grace.  It’s a story relevant to every American (hyphenated or otherwise), every immigrant, everyone who’s ever sought a new life.  Whatever nonsense the Republicans and Democrats are spouting about barrier walls and guest-worker programs, it’s stories like the ones Lee brings to life that are the true lifeblood of this immigrant country.

Leek Mashed Potatoes, with a bonus leftover recipe

There are some beautiful leeks coming out at the farmers’ market right now.  I love the flavor of leeks, but the only recipe I really know is potato-leek soup.  Joe and I put our heads together and came up with this easy, tasty fried leek mashed potato dish.  We had it with a roast chicken and Jennie’s excellent and easy roasted green beans.

Leek Mashed Potatoes

3 leeks, with green parts cut off, split down the middle

1 1/2 lbs potatoes (we used Yukon Golds), skin on

3 tbsp light cream

2 tbsp butter

4 tbsp olive oil

Salt to taste

Dice the potatoes, leaving the skin on, and boil them until they are tender enough to poke with a fork.  Soak the leeks in water for about 20 minutes to wash out any dirt.  Remove from water; drain.  Slice the leeks into 1/2-inch strips.

Heat the olive oil in a pan and saute the leeks.  Let them cook down until they are soft.  Remove them from the oil and put them into a food processor.  Pulse the processor just once or twice– you don’t want to puree the leeks, you just want to chop them into smaller pieces.  Return to pan with 1/2 tbsp butter and sautee until the butter is incorporated.

Mash the potatoes in a large bowl.  Add cream, remaining butter and leeks and fold in until they are incorporated.  Serve hot.

This recipe is gluten free and vegetarian.

Got leftovers?

Leftover Leek Potato Pancakes

Leek Mashed Potatoes

1/2 cup homemade bread crumbs

1 egg

olive oil

plain yogurt or sour cream

Form leftover mashed potatoes into balls and flatten.  You should have a pancake about the size of your palm and half an inch thick.  Beat the egg in a bowl and dip pancakes in egg to coat them.  Roll them in bread crumbs.  Heat the oil in a pan and fry until golden brown and delicious.  Serve with yogurt or sour cream.

This recipe is vegetarian.

Sketch Burger: Holy Kobe!

I have been to the top of the mountain… and they serve hamburgers.

OK, that mild rise on Girard isn’t really even a hill, but the hamburgers really are amazing.  I’m talking about the newly opened Sketch Burger and Shake Joint, at 413 E. Girard in Fishtown [where: 19125].  Dear readers, we have a serious contender for Best Burger in Philly.

The menu is simple: burgers and shakes, and one token salad.  Pick your protein, sauce and toppings, and choose from four shake flavors (vegan or milk).  Options are beef, turkey, ‘smashed onion,’ vegan burger, chicken, and American Kobe beef, as well as the day’s special, a seitan burger highly recommended by the server.  Joe and I, being hedonists, went straight for the American Kobe burger ($9.75).  He got harissa aioli, I chose Thai peanut sauce on the side.  I went for grilled onions and avocado.  The burger arrived, and it was massive.  Really, I cannot believe they crammed that much meat into one burger.  Most kobe burgers tend to be on the small side– $9.75 may be expensive for a burger, but for kobe it’s really an excellent deal.  It arrived medium rare, thank God– overcooking meat of that quality is a sin.  We got our burgers to go, so the bun was slightly soggy, but it really held up well given the juiciness of the burger.  The grilled onions sat below the patty, and above it were slippery sliced avocado, a slice of juicy ripe tomato and some high-quality salad greens.  This is a difficult burger to eat.  It’s crammed full of fresh ingredients that want to come bursting right out of the bun.  The effort, however, is worth it, as is the 20-minute wait while your burger is cooked to order.  The end result is incredibly rich, flavorful, juicy, and did I mention rich?  It was a bit of a shock to my system since I’ve been eating lightly recently, but very much worth it.

We also shared a vanilla milkshake, which was flavorful and thick but not too thick.  (As Joe put it: “Thick, but I won’t have a brain embolism trying to suck it through a straw.”)  Everything is made fresh here, so no chalky chemical taste either.  I try to take it easy on the lactose, so I’m really looking forward to trying a vegan shake.

The shop itself is cute; there are blackboards everywhere and rolls of butcher paper on the tables, and customers are encouraged to doodle with chalk (hence the “Sketch” name).  It’s also open until 11 pm, which is wonderful for those of us who live in the neighborhood.  And vegans, vegetarians and the lactose-intolerant can all find joy in this menu.

I found only two downsides to our delicious, gut-busting meal.  One was the cheese selection: American (ew, plastic), horseradish cheddar, pepper jack, vegan and bleu.  One straightforward cheese option, an aged cheddar or maybe a sharp provolone, would be welcome.  The other was the standard side order of Cheesy Poofs– ours were stale.  Sketch would be better off dropping the little orange orbs and developing the ultimate French fry.  They’ve mastered the ultimate hamburger, so why not?

Dinner on Girard: Ekta and Sketch Burger Joint Opening Today

Good news for Fishtowners!  Chef Raju Bhattarai, formerly the executive chef at Tiffin, has opened his own restaurant, Ekta, at 250 E. Girard [where: 19125].  I stopped by the small storefront space yesterday, and Chef Bhattarai and his staff were busy putting on the finishing touches.  They greeted me warmly and handed me a menu.  Most of the choices are indistinguishable from Tiffin’s menu, no surprise there, but the prices are much more affordable.  One intriguing difference is in the bread section.  In addition to the usual suspects like garlic naan, roti, and the heavenly fruit-and-nut-stuffed Peshawari naan, Ekta offers basil naan, mint naan and rosemary naan.  Hours are also a bit longer than Tiffin’s: Ekta is open until 10 pm Monday-Saturday and 9 pm Sunday, good news for those of us who work the twilight shift.  City Paper reports that a second-floor dining room is in the works as well.  Opening day is today, so drop by if you get a chance– and send me a report!

The other restaurant opening today on Girard is Sketch Burger Joint, a brightly painted pink-and-yellow space run by the owners of Canvas Coffee Co.  The menu advertises itself as vegan-friendly, and wagyu burgers, high-end condiments and vegan milk shakes are on offer (check out the menu over at Foobooz).  Oh, this is a good thing.

Of course, you can’t talk about Girard without mentioning its unquestioned king, Johnny Brenda’s.   We had dinner at Brenda’s the day we moved to Fishtown, and haven’t stopped dropping by.  The new venue space on the second and third floors is a great place to see bands like Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, but what I’m really happy about is the expanded dining room, where the seating is much more comfortable, and you can hear your dinner partner talk.  Brenda’s menu is updated regularly, and the innovation hasn’t stopped yet– my latest favorite is the crab cake salad, three perfect, slightly spicy crabcakes with a creamy dressing and a pile of dark, flavorful salad greens.   I’ll really be happy when the Greek-inspired lamb sliders Brenda’s offered at the Trenton Avenue Arts Festival finally make it onto the menu.  I’ve been craving those for months.

Recession Food: Emergency Recipes

So the economy is crashing and burning, and with oil pushing $150 a barrel, it’s unlikely that food prices will drop, or even plateau, anytime soon.  Most people are struggling to get by (link via What to Eat), and food banks are struggling to keep up with demand as hunger increases among the working poor.

As you might expect, the food media is following suit by publishing lots of money-saving tips.  We’re encouraged to pack our lunches, stop buying prepared foods, eat legumes instead of meat and use coupons wisely- good ideas all.  Our grandparents survived the Depression, and our generation has a lot to learn from them.

But what do you eat when you’re really, really broke?  When you’re down to the change in your couch cushions, what’s for dinner?  Is Taco Bell the only option?

Well, readers, my dear husband and I are card-carrying members of the Working Poor, and we faced this question very regularly in college and then during some lean years trying to survive in New York City.  Since Joe in particular is a master at making something from nothing, we’ve amassed some lovely food-emergency recipes to share with you.  Well… lovely might be pushing it, but they’ll get you through the day.   Here are our top five day-before-payday meals. Read the rest of this entry »

Book Review: Kitchen Literacy

We buy everything, and have no idea by which the articles are produced, and have no means of knowing before hand what the quality may be… Relatively we are in a state of barbarous innocence, as compared with our grandmothers, about the common articles of daily use.

-Ellen Richards, home economist, 1885

I picked up Ann Vileisis‘s Kitchen Literacy: How we lost knowledge of where food comes from, and why we need to get it back at the suggestion of a reader, and I’m glad I did.  It’s a fast, fun overview of an important topic.

Vileisis takes the reader from the kitchens of the late 18th-century New England to those of the present day, tracing the history of the American food system from its pastoral beginnings through its process of industrialization.  She shows how each successive generation has been a step or two further removed from knowledge of where food comes from, and explores the social changes and food scandals that shaped the balance between what people want to eat and what the food industry offers them.  She wraps up by arguing that if we’re going to have a sustainable system that doesn’t poison us on a regular basis, we’re going to need to regain an understanding of seasons, local specializations, and where our food comes from.

It’s a simple enough thesis, and Vileisis doesn’t overcomplicate things– her explorations of the changing roles of women, the nature of work and living patterns, and the politics of federal agencies are mostly cursory.  I didn’t learn much that I hadn’t already read, but I’m pretty well read on this subject.  If you haven’t already exhausted the works of Marion Nestle, Michael Pollan, Friedrich Engels and Upton Sinclair, you’ll find much to enlighten you– and even if you have, it’s an enjoyable and accessible synthesis of what can be a complicated literature.

The joy of this book is in the details Vileisis digs up in her extensive research.  She uses antique cans, product labels and advertisements to trace the way food manufacturers have adapted their pitch to appeal to the needs of each new generation of consumers.  The book is packed with little gems, like a 1928 Piggly Wiggly ad that appeals to the liberated woman (complete with chic hat) by telling her how the new self-service supermarket gives her self-sufficiency:

The woman of today!  So self-reliant now in all her shopping– so sure of her new skill!  Only yesterday her mother depended almost wholly on the advice of salesmen when she bought food-stuffs…  The woman of today with her new, wide knowledge of real values has blazed a trail of her own.  The she may be entirely free to choose for herself, she has made this plan of household buying a nation-wide vogue.

These details really bring the book to life.  (Especially for cultural studies types like me, who loooove to deconstruct advertising.)

Vileisis begins in colonial Maine, where she draws on the wonderful diary of midwife and farm matriarch Martha Ballard (worth a read in itself) to illustrate how very close Americans once were to the sources of our food.  Back then, you knew your milk was fresh because you milked the cow yourself.  Food came directly from sweat and hard work– you grew it yourself, or you traded what you grew for what your neighbors were growing.

As the nineteenth century began, the country began to urbanize rapidly, and the countryside began producing for the city.  A city’s foodshed consisted mostly of the farms in the surrounding countryside, plus a few exotic items like sugar and tropical fruits that were shipped in.  Food was mostly sold fresh in open-air markets.  But as cities industrialized and transportation improved, food was being brought in from more and more far-flung locations.  Fresh food often didn’t survive the trip too well– fruits and vegetables were beginning to rot, and cattle were bruised and emaciated from long and brutal train trips.  This was when the food system began an industrialization of its own, with the introduction of canned produce and “Chicago-dressed” meats (killed and dressed before being shipped).  Vileisis does a great job of illustrating the initial suspicious reactions of people used to fresh foods– it was, after all, a hard sell to convince people to buy food they couldn’t see until they’d paid for it.  Early canning methods were worthy of their skepticism– it took a while for canners to realize that if cans weren’t heated to a specific temperature, botulism could grow and thrive. Food poisoning was quite common in those days, and even well into the twentieth century: Armour’s canned meats notoriously killed nearly as many World War I soldiers as the enemy did.

But social changes prevailed over skepticism: agricultural jobs gave way to factory work, and city children grew up never seeing live plants and animals.  More and more women entered the workplace, not only out of a desire for freedom from traditional roles, but also just to earn enough to keep families afloat.  They had less time to spend shopping and cooking, and convenience foods began to sell widely.  As new generations were raised on canned and prepackaged foods, they became the familiar, comforting norm– and advertisements became less about connecting products to “nature” and more about creating an imaginary world of bountiful farms and idyllic countryside that would appeal to the eyes of consumers.  (Vileisis’s description of the term “natural” and its evolving meaning to generations of consumers is a highlight of the book.)

While each generation had different emotional and cultural needs to which food producers responded, consumers also had fears that shaped both federal regulation and product marketing.  The food system has never been free of problems– from the horrific slaughterhouse conditions Upton Sinclair portrayed in nauseating detail in The Jungle (1906) to, um, the horrific slaughterhouse conditions Eric Schlosser portrayed in nauseating detail in Fast Food Nation (2001).  Contemporary readers are also consumers, and today’s worries about tomatoes, spinach, e. coli and pet food from China will seem familiar in Vileisis’s descriptions of scandals over adulterated jam, pesticide residues in canned vegetables and sodium benzoate (a poisonous and once-controversial preservative still widely used in manufactured foods):

Even as serious concerns were raised and not addressed, most consumers had little choice but to continue their grocery shopping as usual.  What could an individual shopper do about the fact that pesticides killed fish, that chickens were jammed into cages, or that agriculture used too much oil?  Through the 1950s most American shoppers’ lack of awareness about their foods may have been characterized by a naive “I don’t know,” but by the mid-1970s, with more prevalent news of toxic pesticide residues and repugnant animal factories, it had become an anxious and resigned “I don’t want to know.”

Sound familiar?  She follows this with a quick overview of the rise of the organic food movement and a call for consumers to become more involved with their food choices.  It’s surprisingly short, though in fairness, how to do so can be (and is) enough for an entire book in itself.

Kitchen Literacy is a fascinating book.  It’s not a food-politics education in itself, but it’s a great jumping-off point for those new to food politics, and might inspire even the skeptical to read further, and better yet, to ask some pointed questions about what’s in the food they eat.

Memphis Taproom: Fishtown Foodways Grow Up

Fishtowners rejoice- you have a new hangout.  The new Memphis Taproom [where: 19125] opened this week at the corner of Memphis and Cumberland, and Joe and I went to check it out last night.

It’s a simple spot– a bar, a small dining room, wooden floors and lighted glass blocks for decoration.  The menu, too, is simple: hot appetizers, salads, sandwiches and platters, with an excellent selection of local beers on tap and reasonably priced bottles.  The food is straightforward– burgers, fried chicken, sandwiches– but it’s clear that chef Jesse Kimball, formerly of Center City’s Matyson, knows what he’s doing.  There are little creative twists on each dish that make this bar food into something special.  Jacket potatoes come with real, aged cheddar, not the canned stuff; steak frites are tinged with garlic and served with a light arugula salad and excellent fries.  Fish and chips can be ordered with fish, or with miso-marinated battered tofu.  The hot appetizers are substantial enough to satisfy late-night drinkers, and the meal portions are filling without the giant-plate excess offered at so many Philly restaurants.  Joe’s pulled-pork sandwich was a toasted roll filled with smoky, tender pork, spicy barbecue sauce and an inventive smoked coleslaw.

Memphis Taproom has only been open for four days, so some of the kinks are still being worked out: not all of the beers we ordered were actually available yet, and desserts, brunch and the late-night menu aren’t up and running yet.  Still, there’s no question that this will be a regular hangout for Fishtown locals and neo-Fishtown hipsters alike– they were represented in just about equal numbers when we visited.  It’s a balance that many local businesses find difficult to strike, and Memphis Taproom is succeeding so far: enticing hipsters with retro decor, lots of vegetarian and vegan options, and a sophisticated beer menu, while also making longtime locals feel welcome with reasonable prices, tasty interpretations of local classics like pirogies and Polish sausage (a dish that’s close to my Pittsburgh heart) and an unpretentious atmosphere.  (No cheesesteaks on the menu, though.)

The Taproom’s website says that Kimball is “currently studying the foodways of America’s inner cities,” and he’s certainly picked a good place to do that.  I for one am looking forward to walking down the street and sampling his interpretations of Philly cuisine on a regular basis.  Especially those steak frites.

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