'Fortune Cookie' a Wisdom Stuffed Delicacy

Hidden beneath the numerous cards, tickets, and to-do lists stuffed in my wallet, taped onto your refrigerator above that painting from second grade, buried beneath papers in some drawer, are sage pieces of advice with a humble origin: a bite-sized baked cookie. These small cookies, however, have quite a big story. In “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food,” Jennifer 8. Lee ’98-’99, a New York Times Reporter, embarks on a journey that bridges many centuries, many countries, many people, and many other staple Chinese-American dishes in retelling the often dramatic, always intriguing history of the fortune cookie. Thoroughly researched and surprisingly artistic and imaginative, Lee’s four-year search weaves through the complex history of the Chinese food industry in the United States and discovers much of interest.

The primary focus of Lee’s work is to uncover the origin of the fortune cookie—which, as it turns out, is not Chinese. But the book takes its time to deliver the answer, taking many rich detours that serve to enlighten the reader not only about the Chinese cuisine but the culture as a whole. Though such an overwhelming amount of material without a definite structure can at times be confusing, cracking open “Fortune Cookie” still proves as satisfying as the dessert itself.

Lee, a former Crimson vice president, begins her account with a remarkable story about an incident in 2005 in which a record-setting 104 out of 110 winners of a Powerball lottery chose the same five numbers—using fortune cookies. It was this story, and the discovery that the fortune cookie is not Chinese, that sparked Lee’s mission to learn more about the dessert. This search leads her to examine, tangentially, other facets of the American Chinese food industry: the ubiquity of the take-out menu, the popularity of chop suey, the integral role played by Chinese immigrants. Written from the first-person perspective, Lee’s book is quirky and amusing, a banquet of anecdotes and adventures complete with well-placed, droll quips. Excavating the often long and complicated history of Chinese food for the richest, most appetizing bits seems a daunting task, but Lee manages to sift through the insipid for the necessary and the entertaining.

Her search involves many historical accounts, yet she complements the facts with personal anecdotes and interviews that reveal to her reader that she’s not just concerned with food, but Chinese-American experiences in general. With the perspective of an American-born-Chinese, she addresses with shrewdness and insight the historical and social dynamics of the Chinese in America. One chapter is devoted entirely to a Chinese family Lee knew, whose only viable professional option was the 24-hour, 364-day per year Chinese restaurant business, the strain of which leads to the family almost disintegrating. Another chapter, with a backbone of interview comments, recounts the story of Michael, an illegal Fujianese immigrant who risked his life to travel to the United States to support his family. He eventually went on to run his own restaurant, but it was not for personal gain or out of choice that he left home. As Lee makes explicit, “[Chinese immigrants] don’t gamble with their lives for their own sakes. They do it for their parents—and their children.” With such understandings as this, Lee shows that the Chinese food this country loves has been the product of individuals who themselves have sacrificed so much to share in this country’s experience.

This vein of culture—and the implications of identification and assimilation that it carries­—run throughout “Fortune Cookie.” The novel also is able to transcend merely one culture, as Lee relates the Jewish relationship to Chinese food and how the original General Tso’s chicken transformed, based on American tastes, into its well-known form today.

Unfortunately, despite its intellectual merit and entertainment value, the book sometimes becomes bogged down by the sheer volume of what Lee has to offer to her readers. A chapter on trying to find the best Chinese restaurant in the world seems superfluous and a bit boring compared with the rest of the book. She tends to use exaggerated descriptions, especially in relation to food and friends, that divulge little of interest. And while no one can fault her for her devotion to reporting, all of the names tied to all of the histories do prove confusing. Lee is more effective when she focuses the spotlight on one individual, as she does in an early chapter with Misa Chang, the woman who popularized the delivery menu, and charts her impact through many other facets of the food industry. Still, the fact that Lee offers such comprehensive, exhaustive details is commendable, a testament to the effort and enthusiasm of her work.

“Chronicles” is not only imbued with Lee’s infectious energy, but is also personal, colorful, and, above all, fun. She makes her journey to find the reason behind the fortune cookie’s popularity ours, as well. To quote one of those slips of paper from my wallet, “To love what you do and feel that it matters—how could anything be more fun?” Lee’s “Fortune Cookie Chronicles” embodies this exactly.

—Staff writer Denise J. Xu can be contacted at dxu@fas.harvard.edu.