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Good fortune

(article, Christina Eng)

Jennifer 8. Lee calls it philosophy lite. “For people who don’t have time to contemplate the life well lived or read Confucius, Immanuel Kant, or Aristotle,” she writes, “fortune cookies provide the Cliff Notes version of wisdom.” 

In The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, Lee looks at the appeal of these slightly sweet after-dinner treats and their oft-contested origins. Some say they were invented in San Francisco; others say they first emerged in Los Angeles. Actually, as Lee revealed in the New York Times in January, fortune cookies originated in Japan.

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But it was Chinese restaurants in America that transformed fortune cookies into the ubiquitous treat we know today. Wonton Food Inc., in Brooklyn, New York, is “the largest fortune-cookie manufacturer in the United States, at least twice as big as its nearest competitor," writes Lee, with a “de facto fortune-cookie writer” (Donald Lau, at least until he retired in 1995). 

Lee looks also at the sheer number — roughly 40,000 — of Chinese restaurants in America these days, “more than the number of McDonald’s, Burger Kings, and KFCs combined,” she says, and at the owners and largely immigrant workers (both legal and illegal) who keep them running, serving typical dishes such as beef and broccoli and General Tso’s chicken. 

The book has been getting playful and positive press in recent weeks. On Comedy Central’s "The Colbert Report," for example, Lee tried to convince satirical host Stephen Colbert “that Chinese food is more American than apple pie.” She rolled with his improv.

In the San Francisco Chronicle, Kevin Smokler points out the book's strengths: 

bq. Lee promises procedural journalism, a how-and-here's-why book like the work of Michael Pollan and Elizabeth Royte, but instead delivers an intoxicating ethnographic study of the history and culture of American Chinese cuisine. No, this wasn't exactly what we ordered, nor what it looked like on the menu. But we support her digressions, because the book we got is probably just as much fun as the one she promised.

Reviews in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times_ (where Lee is a staff writer) have also been upbeat. Good fortune indeed.

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