china / food / literature

Chop Suey and Fortune Cookies: A History

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: *

Although Jennifer 8. Lee (yes, her middle name is “8”) gave an interesting TedX speech on the nature of Chinese food in America, the novel tied to that talk, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, was a shambling mess. Although it attempted to touch on several interesting points (the origin of General Tao’s chicken, the appeal of Chinese food for Jewish people), its lack of coherence killed that ambition. Besides, the book also included the patently ridiculous attempt to “find the best Chinese restaurant in the world”. Never mind that lumping all “chinese food” into one category displays Lee’s ignorance of the cuisine–never mind that she is not a food critic, and that she only visited a tiny fraction of the Chinese restaurants in the world. Attempting to squash a quest that would have taken a lifetime of dedicated eating into a few measly pages robs her book of the merits it might have possessed beyond its admittedly clever and often-harped-upon catch phrase: “If our benchmark for Americanness is apple pie, ask yourself, how often do you eat apple pie? Now how often do you eat Chinese food?” Which is, in itself, not a very fair question. Apple pie is a dessert associated with special occasions. If the question were phrased differently, say–with McDonald’s, meatloaf, a steak, or other, perhaps more “quintessentially American” foods in its place, the answer might not be so skewed towards Chinese food.

Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States: ***

Which is not to say that the history of Chinese food in America is not a fascinating subject. I was deeply disappointed in Lee’s book, but found solace in another of the same vein: Andrew Coe’s Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States. Note the words “cultural history”, which give this book its true merit–it follows the path of Chinese food from the mouths of the first American traders in the Middle Kingdom all the way to the chopsticks of Richard Nixon on his history-making visit to China. Meticulously researched and deftly written, Andrew Coe takes the subject a step beyond Lee’s personal musings and casts Chinese food onto the historical stage–from American imperialism through the gold rush, past Prohibition and into the modern day. For anyone interested in Chinese history, immigrant stories, or delicious food, this book is a worthwhile read.




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