Jennifer 8 Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is a short, disjointed, history of Chinese American food. The best parts of this book are the chapters that deal with the food itself. The other chapters cover the working life of Chinese immigrants who work in those restaurants, traveling around the world in search of the greatest Chinese restaurants, and Chinese immigration among other topics. I’ll admit that I skipped some of these chapters in my rush to get back to the food.
I knew that a lot of the dishes you find in Chinese restaurants in America are not authentic. Lee devotes a chapter each to trying to track down where chop suey and General Tso’s chicken (a favorite of mine) come from. I was surprised to learn that there really was a General Tso, though he has about the same relationship with the recipe that the Duke of Wellington had with his eponymous beef. Lee also has a couple of chapters in which she traces the history of fortune cookies. Interestingly, fortune cookies never caught on in China when American companies tried to introduce them. Lee has evidence that fortune cookies are actually based on Japanese tsujiura senbei, a kind of cracker with written fortunes inside.
These food history chapters are the best part of the book, but I really wish the Lee had been better about citing her sources. She mentions finding articles in nineteenth century issues of The New York Times, but she doesn’t mention the dates so that a curious reader could track them down unless you track them down in the notes at the end of the book. Most of her information comes from speaking to the descendants of immigrants who may or may not have been the first at whatever Lee is investigating. This bothers the scholar in me, because a lot of this testimony is not backed up by other evidence.
This book was an interesting read, but it’s far from the definitive history of Chinese American food. If you’re looking for just a taste, though, this is a pretty good book.