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.

Marion Nestle on African Agriculture

Everyone’s favorite left-wing nutritionist Marion Nestle continues to be amazing.  Check out her Q&A with Eating Liberally on the fallout from her recent talk at economist Jeffrey Sachs’s Earth Institute.  It seems Sachs took exception to Nestle’s contention that perhaps a “Green Revolution” isn’t all Africa needs:

American and European food and agriculture companies that exist for the purpose of earning profits for stockholders are not going to be able to do much to help poor farmers in Africa make a living. For one thing, Western companies depend on government subsidies to keep the prices of their products down and this undermines the ability of African farmers to sell crops at a decent price.

Check it out, it’s worth reading the whole thing.

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.

Sushi, Eggs and Oatmeal: Critical Thinking, Common Sense, and Nutrition

I’ve been around the block a few times, nutritionally speaking. I’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease (wrong) and Crohn’s disease (right, we think), I’ve spent countless hours at the allergist’s office, I’ve been told to follow diet after diet. Yet through all of that, none of my HMOs have ever allowed me to visit a nutritionist*– until now. My HMO is offering six free visits as a promotion, so I made an appointment.

I selected a nutritionist who works from the same office as my (totally fabulous and lifesaving!) gastroenterologist. I was so excited– finally, answers! Marion Nestle’s advice on what to eat is great, but with a Crohn’s diagnosis, I really felt like I needed more targeted advice. Not only that, but I’ve had some issues lately with my eating patterns. I’ll starve all day and then stuff myself at night, or eat a healthy lunch only to binge on junk food in the evening. I’ll cast around for something healthy to eat that won’t worsen a flare-up, only to come up empty-handed and drink an Ensure instead. I gain weight when I think I should be losing, and lose when I think I should be gaining.

In other words, I’ve got a weird, complex and emotionally fraught relationship with food, just like a whole lot of other people in this sexist, diet-obsessed society, and I thought maybe seeing a nutritionist would help.

The verdict? Helpful, but not in the ways I expected. Read the rest of this entry »

An Apology (With a Side of Link Salad)

Dear Readers,

Many of you have checked in to ask where I’ve been. I’m sorry for the long drought in posting; I’m afraid my offline life has gotten in the way. I’ve been swamped at work and am keeping long hours right now; combined with health issues and the total disintegration of our ISP, it’s been rough just keeping up with daily life.

Posting will be light for a while, but the Real Potato is very much alive and will be back in gear soon. Posts are in the works, on topics such as a trip to the nutritionist, homemade egg salad even a mayo-hater can love, old-fashioned food preservation techniques for a newly depressed economy, and some love for the new/old Philadelphia Brewing Co.

In the meantime, here’s a fresh, tasty bowl of link salad!

Chris Williams analyzes the UN conference on the food crisis at Socialist Worker; Sam Urquhart does the same over at MRZine.

The Independent investigates how multinational corporations are profiteering during the food crisis.

This time it’s tomatoes: Gourmet examines the latest food recall. Marion Nestle replies.

Shapely Prose has a rollicking debate about Japan’s new program to pressure and shame workers into losing weight by any means necessary.

Up, Up, and Away: Food Prices Soaring Worldwide

Image from al-Arab Online.

A few years ago, when I started eating a strict gluten-free diet, my grocery bill tripled. I was shocked at having to pay $6 for a loaf of bread, and began using a bread maker to try to cut costs. Gluten-eating friends and family were invariably horrified when I told them how much gluten-free bread cost.

Today, a $6 loaf of bread isn’t uncommon. The price of flour has risen 40.6% this quarter, according to Forbes Magazine. Friend of the blog KeenEye, who owns a gourmet pizzeria in Oregon, reports:

Our flour?

Now at $37.52 a bag.

Yep. From $9 bucks a bag 142 days ago.

I’m pretty much freaking out.

She’s not alone. Wheat and rice prices are spiraling, causing a rising sense of panic. Business magazines have begun throwing around words like “famine” and “peak wheat.” Rice has hit a 20-year high, and many rice-exporting countries are instituting bans or caps on exports in the hopes of meeting domestic demand:

Vietnam’s government announced here on Friday that it would cut rice exports by nearly a quarter this year. The government hoped that keeping more rice inside the country would hold down prices.

The same day, India effectively banned the export of all but the most expensive grades of rice. Egypt announced on Thursday that it would impose a six-month ban on rice exports, starting April 1, and on Wednesday, Cambodia banned all rice exports except by government agencies. (New York Times)

Food prices are spiking everywhere: while US consumers are feeling the squeeze with an overall 8.9% increase, in Egypt, prices are up by 50%. Food riots have broken out in Guinea, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan and Yemen, according to the Times; the Globe and Mail adds Egypt and Cameroon to the list.

There are a number of reasons for the spike in prices. Read the rest of this entry »

If You Teach Someone to Fish: Creative Solutions to the Food Crisis

The health crisis here in the US is reaching a critical point. There are drugs in our drinking water, sick cows in our meat supply, and additives in pretty much everything. We’re seeing huge increases in diabetes rates and bowel disease. We are not a healthy country.

The food industry isn’t entirely to blame: pollution, occupational exposure to chemicals, and lack of time/money to exercise are part of it too. You can’t simply blame one industry, but the overall effect of all of these factors is that we are exposed to a brew of chemicals unprecedented in human history, and we don’t know exactly how it is affecting us. You can study, say, the effects of dioxin exposure through tampon use; but what happens to someone who’s exposed to a multitude of chemical products through tampon use and food additives and pesticides and polluted water and industrial chemicals released into the air? How do you control for all that? You don’t, you can’t, so we’re reduced to guesswork. And a lack of proof means that the government can’t or won’t curb the corporations that pollute. (See Sandra Steingraber’s Living Downstream for more on this.)

So what do we do? (Solutions after the jump.) Read the rest of this entry »

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