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.


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.

The Gadget Wall: Pot Roast and Moroccan Chicken Stew in the Slow Cooker.

Certain things happen when you get married. Your parents cry. You learn way more than you ever wanted to know about ring sizes. You learn a lot about your relationship. You explore many ways of answering the question ‘So when are you having a baby?’ (We’ll have to get back to you on that, nebnose.) And at the end of it all, you’re left with lots of photos, lots of memories, and lots and lots of kitchen appliances.

This is probably even more true if you are known to be foodies. Joe and I met working at the late, great Lechters Housewares, received all sorts of coffee makers, flatware, and slow cookers, among other gifts, from our wonderful and generous friends and family. We love gadgets, and we both subscribe to Alton Brown’s Unitasker Theory: the only unitasker allowed in our kitchen is the fire extinguisher. (OK, and maybe that awesome stovetop coffeepot Paola brought us from Lebanon.)

Fortunately, the slow cooker is versatile. Stew? Sauce? A whole chicken? Check, check and check. Our thoughtful friends Peter and Cat gave us not only a spiffy slow cooker, but also The Slow Cooker Ready & Waiting Cookbook: 160 Sumptuous Meals that Cook Themselves by Rick Rodgers. Like many cookbooks organized around a gadget, this one pulls recipes from every corner of the globe and adapts them for American tastes. I’m generally skeptical of this approach, but after two really, really delicious meals, I have to admit that Rick knows what he’s doing.

Both recipes are deceptively simple. The recipes are long, and aimed at beginner cooks, with instructions like ‘turn on the slow cooker’– so I’ll summarize them here but add a few notes. My main criticism is that these recipes go too light on the seasonings– feel free to load up on your spices and aromatics. Also, he seems to be a fan of canned broths. I use them sometimes, but try to stick to fresh– the sodium levels in canned broth are ridiculous, and they tend to be full of additives. The pot roast recipe is gluten-free, if GF beer is used; the chicken stew is dairy free, and also GF if served with rice or quinoa instead of couscous. Read the rest of this entry »

What to Eat: How I Learned to Stop Fussing and Eat My Vegetables

fractal cauliflower
Stare directly into the cauliflower.

You know those kids who will not eat their vegetables, no matter how much you prod and bribe and threaten? The ones who gag at the sight of a bowl of peas?

That was me. Until about two months ago.

All right, I’m exaggerating a little– I started eating some vegetables in college– but it was only recently that I started seeking veggies out and eating them voluntarily. Before that, it took serious effort to get anything leafy, green or nutritious through my lips. My stepbrothers still tease me about that bowl of peas.

I’m telling you this with the zeal of the recent convert. I want you to know that it’s possible. I’m not some tofu-eating hippie who grew up vegetarian, no ma’am. I was the food industry’s dream, a pleasure seeker who refused to read food labels and thought a cream-filled oatmeal cookie sandwich in plastic wrap was a nutritious breakfast. I spent an entire year of high school eating Lance wafer cookies and Burger King for lunch every day. Don’t blame my mom– she tried her best to get those veggies into my mouth, but I just wasn’t having it. Read the rest of this entry »

Five reasons you should be a Tony Bourdain fan.

nasty bits

So last Friday, I finally joined the 21st century and started using Google Reader. I added some Philly events blogs, and the first thing that popped up was an announcement that Anthony Bourdain would be speaking for free at the Vine St. library the following day. I’ve been a fan of Bourdain’s since his first book, Kitchen Confidential, and have since enjoyed both of his TV shows, A Cook’s Tour and, currently, No Reservations. So I changed my plans (thank you, Diana!), grabbed my copy of Bourdain’s new essay collection, The Nasty Bits, and joined an absurdly long line in the library basement to wait for a seat.

Bourdain didn’t disappoint– despite being exhausted from his book tour and ready to go home to his wife and baby in New York, he gave a heartfelt and witty talk urging his fans to get passports, see the world, and open their minds to new ideas, foods and cultures. He answered lots of questions from the audience, including mine, and then he stayed for at least an hour signing books. (I gave him a card for this blog, so Tony, if you actually read this, hi there!)

I’m not much for TV chefs (except for Alton Brown), but I think Bourdain is a talented, decent guy, and you should totally buy his books and watch his show. For the uninitiated, here’s why I’m a Bourdain fan:

1. He’s hilarious, and a talented writer.

On filming in Singapore:

I am barely able to speak. I can’t even drink my industrial-size Tsing Tao beer. My eyes swim around in my head like drugged minnows, and my stomach is in full warning mode, signaling “one more thing, Tony– and it’s curtains.” I know what the penalty is for publicly urinating in Singapore. What, I wonder, is the penalty for lurching into the street and spraying vomit into the gutter? Then collapsing into a gibbering, crying, spastically shaking heap? Read the rest of this entry »

Gluten-Free for a Day

gluten free girl

When I went gluten-free, it was a crash course in nutrition not only for me, but for everyone who cared about me. Joe read everything he could about flour mixes, and learned to bake gluten-free versions of all of my favories. Friends who’d never read a label in their lives were suddenly asking me detailed questions about the contents of modified food starch, and my grammy spent the holiday season figuring out which of her cookie recipes could be adapted to be gluten-free. I was deeply touched to see them going to such great lengths to feed me– in fact, it was that experience that made me realize how deeply rooted our food traditions are in our lives and relationships.

But cooking for (or even finding a restaurant for) a gluten-free loved one was also a learning experience for them. They were always astonished to realize how much effort is involved in maintaining a strictly gluten-free life. It reminds me of an interactive exhibit that was at the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum when I was a kid– there was a whole setup with a kitchen, a store, and other areas, and you had to negotiate everything using a wheelchair. It helped kids to realize the challenges people who use wheelchairs face, and learn to be more considerate and mindful.

Which is why I was so moved when I read a post called One Gluten-Free Day at Not Martha (which is hereby added to my blogroll). In honor of the release of the book Gluten-Free Girl, by Shauna James Ahern (of the wonderful blog by the same name), Not Martha decided to see if she could follow a strict GF diet for an entire day. The result is an eye-opener for her and for the reader– go, click, enjoy!

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The Paradox of Plenty: Marion Nestle’s “Food Politics”


If you’re older than I am, you might remember an incident that took place in 1981, during the early days of the Reagan administration.  Parents were complaining that their children’s federally funded school lunches, often poor children’s only full meal of the day, weren’t nutritious enough.  In fact, few lunches contained any vegetables at all.  The administration’s infamous response was to reclassify tomatoes, botanically a fruit, so that the ketchup served with kids’ soggy French fries would be considered a vegetable.

In Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (2002), Marion Nestle, a leading nutritionist and then-chair of the NYU department of nutrition, food science, and public health, shows that calling ketchup a vegetable is just the tip of the regulatory iceberg.  The book is a thorough and often shocking review of the historically cozy relationship between the food industry and the US government, and how that relationship has affected the food regulations (and deregulation) that determine the quality and the marketing of the food we eat.  Read the rest of this entry »