I had been on a South African literature kick for far too long when I finally got around to picking up “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles – Adventures in the World of Chinese Food” by Jennifer 8. Lee (yes, her middle name is the number eight) over our winter travels. I had been procrastinating writing about it on the blog until I saw a reference to chop suey in a recent tv obsession of ours, Boardwalk Empire. So today I share with you the second book review of our blog in the hopes that it will open your eyes to the world of American Chinese food just as much as it did for me.
I had seen writer, reporter, Chinese-American (or American-Chinese), Ms. Lee speak in a compelling TED talk podcast about the origins of General Tso’s chicken (and Tso’s descendants’ lack of awareness of the dish) sometime last year. When a good friend recommended her book I figured it would be interesting to read the history of American Chinese food when I’m living in the country of its supposed origins.
I’ll have to admit, since moving to Asia four and a half years ago I have only had “American-Chinese food” twice. Anyone have traveled or lived in China can probably tell you that in the words of Ms. Lee, “It’s American. It just looks Chinese.” Having experienced the differences between Chinese food and Chinese food I tend to now favor the cuisine of my adopted home rather than my motherland. It’s hard sometimes hard to put your finger on what makes American-Chinese food so distinct and Ms. Lee does a good job exploring not only that, but how this cuisine came about in a way that made me crave it again. So send us some moo shu pork please!
While Lee explores the origins of Chinese food, especially the fortune cookie (which she finds isn’t actually Chinese), she makes a fascinating case about how it is inherently American, almost to a degree that I wasn’t ready to admit. At the conclusion of her first chapter she remarks, “Our benchmark for Americanness is apple pie. But ask yourself, how often do you eat apple pie? How often do you eat Chinese food?” If you think about any main street USA, there’s usually a Hong Kong Diner or Panda Express on the corner. Furthermore to call it “inauthentic” Lee remarks,
“‘Authenticity’ is a concept that food snobs propagate, not one that reflects how people really cook and eat on a daily basis. Improvisation and adaption have defined cuisine throughout history…American Chinese food has developed its own identity – so much so that it is sold in Korea, Singapore, and the Dominican-Republic as its own distinct cuisine.”
So how does this apply to living in China? Well, in the same way watching Hu Jintao brush shoulders with Obama does. Watching China in the US as Lee talks about xenophobia in the early days of immigration, discussing the Chinese restaurant trade and how new immigrants find work in New York and everywhere else (which conjures up this New Yorker cartoon), examining how Chinese families cope with living in the US, and how they try to preserve their own culture while adapting to that of the US, feels very familiar to the day to day assimilation we are met with her in China everyday. We’re just doing it in reverse. Not to compare my expatriate life to that of an immigrants, but you get my meaning. Plus she talks about food a lot.