Friday, August 28, 2009

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles - Jennifer 8. Lee


I am happy to review my very first of twelve books that qualify for my Random Reading Challenge. I must say, it is an absolute hoot to stack all my TBR's in a huge pile, number them, then grab a number from random.org to see what my next read will be! This book was a giveaway that I won from Frances of Nonsuch Book. Thanks Frances!

In 2005, something very strange happened. In the multi-state Powerball lottery, where normally only a few people might choose the winning numbers, dozens of people from all over the country hit it big. A conspiracy? Fraud? No! These people played the numbers from their fortune cookies. Jennifer 8. Lee, a Chinese-American, was intrigued, and set off to find out more.

What follows is a scatter-shot investigation of everything Chinese. Who invented the fortune cookie? Not the Chinese, as we are all inclined to guess, but research would show the Japanese responsible for the most oft-eaten desert in America.

We learn about the origination of the idea to deliver Chinese food to the masses, the marketing, the competition, and the standardization of menus. About the finer touches of brewing soy sauce. About the intertwined relationship between the Jewish community and Chinese food. About a scandal involving kosher ducks. About the perils of being a Chinese delivery person. The burnout of fortune-writers, did Confucius really say all that stuff, and the importance of screening out those fortunes that may offend someone. Did you know that General Tso's chicken does not exist in China, but is truly an American invention?

How is it that all Chinese restaurants are mom and pop shops, but are eerily interchangeable? What price does a Chinese family pay to own and run one of these restaurants? Ms. Lee tells us of Chinese immigrants that spent tens of thousands of dollars and risked their lives to come to America, and that a majority of them end up working in the restaurant industry. Ever wonder the name and location of the greatest Chinese restaurant in the world? Are you dizzy yet?

I am almost speechless. Almost. Don't get me wrong, I love Chinese food like the rest of America. This book is just chock full of facts about anything remotely related to Chinese food. And then some. The facts are interesting. The writing is factual and organized. But if it weren't for Jennifer 8. Lee's earnest passion for her topic, I would have set this aside after the kosher duck scandal. It was just too much random information about a topic in which I have only a casual interest. I will admit, though, that I am a softie. How can you turn your back on a girl that waxes poetic about a fortune cookie:

"An unbroken fortune cookie and an unexpired lottery ticket: they both hold promise. There is no sense of disappointment, of unfulfilled potential. It's a bit like youth. Both also ask for a small leap of faith. If you believe in the potential of the lucky number, in the upbeat fortune, you will be happier. It's a little bit of optimism packaged inside a wafer, an American import."

2.5 out of 5 stars

22 comments:

bermudaonion said...

I won this book too. I had no idea it was non-fiction. I have a feeling it won't be at the top of my TBR pile after this review.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I'm still shaking my head Kathy. Perhaps if I had this heritage it would mean more, I don't know. It really wasn't boring, but more than once I stopped reading and thought "I can't believe I am reading about how to make good soy sauce!"

Beth F said...

This sounds great!! But it doesn't sound like the type of book to read through from front to back. I'd love to have it around to look at off and on. I guess I'm weird.... I'm off to see if I can order it.

Book Bird Dog said...

This is definitely a book for foodies. Much of what the author wrote I know, as I grew up eating lots of Chinese food, and continued in four different countries. For those curious about the history of the Chinese in America, many of whom opened restaurants or food businesses, it's like a good reference book!

caite said...

hmmm...it might not be great, but I think it sounds oddly interesting.

maybe not enough to buy it, since I didn't get a copy and I do have those hundreds of books in my TBR pile...lol

Andreea said...

I'm sorry that the book didn't meet your expectations! While some things really sound interesting, I think that the book contains too much information and facts. Thanks for your honest review!

Melody said...

The title sounds good! I think this will only appeal to readers who are interested in Chinese food or food lovers.

Funnily, you can't find many fortune cookies over here!! However, I'd recommend 'char siew pau' to you (they're actually minced pork buns). :P

Lauren said...

Great review. This book is on my TBR pile as well, I got it a bit ago. I'm glad the writing style made the facts interesting, if not random!

Sandy Nawrot said...

Beth - I did find myself chirping out little Chinese food facts to my husband. Everything you ever wanted to know and more!

Book Bird Dog - I think it would mean alot to someone closer to the culture! And when I say that, I don't want to sound like I'm not interested in other cultures, because I am. It was just more information than I needed I think!

Caite - I don't know that I would ever buy it, but that is the beauty sometimes of the giveaways. It gets you outside your comfort zone!

Andreea - it was information overload. I'm thinking I might have retained about 5% of what I read.

Melody - that is really the funny thing. It was invented by the Japanese for the American culture. Cracks me up!

Lauren - the passion with which this author writes jumps off the page. This was a woman with a real love for Chinese food!

Melissa - Shhh I'm Reading said...

I thought this one had lots of random info too. I only made it about halfway through it before I set it aside...and usually I love non-fiction!

The Bumbles said...

I hate the taste of fortune cookies - but I love the little messages inside. They aren't really fortunes anymore, so much as quotes or words to live by. I have one pinned up on my desk - it says "Remember, every downhill has it's uphill." It is a lot nicer than a fortune I got one time when I was little that said "You will die of overeating." That always cracked me up.

ds said...

Wow. Now that's a book that's all over the map. Mr. L-S will be most disappointed that General Tso's chicken was invented here. As for the fortune cookies, I can't top the bumbles...
Great review, even tho' you didn't like the book so much!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I started reading this. The facts were interesting but the writing was a little scattered. And it made me hungry!

Sandy Nawrot said...

Melissa - sadly, that makes me feel just a bit better. More than once I wanted to lay it down and move on, but just couldn't do that to an author that loves her subject so!

Bumbles - Apparently there are Chinese people who are horrified that all of the fortunes you now get are all happy. They feel that is very wrong! I guess us Americans can't handle the truth. I can't believe you got that fortune. That is hilarious!

ds - yeah, my dad is in the same boat as LS. That is his favorite dish!

Rhapsody - again, I feel justified that I'm not the only one. It is so all over the place!

farmlanebooks said...

This sounds like my sort of thing! Sounds a bit like the problems you had with Mr Whicher - too many facts per page. It is the sort of book I'd like to have hanging round the house. (Beth and I must be very similar!) so I could just read a few pages a day.

Matt said...

I agree with you that the book is packed with so many details that at times it set my head spinning! I still enjoyed it (probably because I was delighted reading about the twisted and weird Chinese food that Americans come to like). :)

J. Kaye said...

Sounds better than the rating...even so, not my sort of read. I'm more into fiction.

C. B. James said...

I am loving the Random Reading Challenge. All sorts of books I bought and have skipped over for years are coming up.

Iliana said...

I'm not really a foodie so I don't know that I'd enjoy the book that much but I'm sort of intrigued by the premise! And, I've seen the book but didn't realize it was non fiction!

Anna said...

This one is on my shelf. When it came in the mail, I admit I flipped to the chapter on General Tso and was shocked! LOL I can't wait to read the rest of the book.

--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric

Serena said...

ooo to uncover the nuances of chinese food

Jennie said...

I loved this book and couldn't put it down! But then again, I'm always on a quest for real Chinese food instead of American Chinese food and I'm obsessed with local tastes and how they change... (such as Anglo-Indian food versus Indian food, or even that time I went out for Mexican in China, which was not like Mexican in the States... or even how McDonald's menus change... Ok, yes, I'm a dork.)

Oh well, not every book is for every reader...

But I'm also loving the random reader challenge, but I'll confess I just entered all my books into a spread sheet...