Last week I finished reading Jennifer 8. Lee's fantastic book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. In it Lee searches out the origins of various aspects of Chinese food, to discover that many of them are American inventions. Chop suey is unknown in China, and was likely invented here in the States and described as "bits and pieces" of stuff. (Leftovers!) General Tso's chicken has also been radically Americanized. Lee visited Tso's hometown in China, and found that it was unheard of there. The Chinese chef who created the dish was shocked to see how it had been changed. "The dish can't be sweet," Chef Peng said. "That isn't the taste of Hunan cuisine. The taste of Hunan cuisine is not sweet."
The white cardboard takeout boxes are also an American invention, originally used for various kinds of restaurants but quickly became associated with Chinese takeout. Much soy sauce made by American companies is not made from soybeans and is little more than salted water with vegetable proteins. And the "P. F." in the name of the P. F. Chang's China Bistro restaurant chain stands for founder Paul Fleming, who also cocreated Outback Steakhouse.
Fortune cookies, too, have an interesting history - they're originally Japanese and can still be found made by hand in Japan. How did they become Chinese? During WWII, Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps, and many lost everything. Entrepreneurial Chinese restaurateurs filled the vacuum and started producing the cookies as "Chinese tea cakes." Soon they became synonymous with Chinese restaurants. One Japanese American says that he wishes that Americans knew the Japanese origin of the fortune cookie, but he respects the role of the Chinese in refining it. "They marketed it better. They put a better spin on it, and that is how it got world popular and ubiquitous."
Lee argues that Chinese food has become as thoroughly an American institution as baseball and apple pie. Chinese restaurants in the U.S. outnumber McDonald's two to one; there are over 40,000 Chinese restaurants, which is more than McDonald's, Burger King and KFC combined. And the story of American Chinese food is in many ways a chronicle of cultural contextualization. If McDonald's is standardized like Microsoft Windows, Chinese restaurants are open source like Linux. You can find Cajun Chinese food in Louisiana, with Szechuan alligator and soy-vinegar crawfish dishes. In Philadelphia, you can find Philly cheesesteak rolls. [There's an analogy here for the church. Just as Chinese restaurants contextualize and adapt to local environments while staying distinctively Chinese in flavor and style, so too do churches contextualize and adapt while staying distinctively Christian.]
Lee's book also touches on justice issues, like human smuggling and the struggles of immigrant Chinese restaurant workers. Being a Chinese deliveryman in New York City is dangerous, with people being killed for nine bucks' worth of food. Chinese food has been a path out of poverty for many Chinese peasants in search of a better life, but it has also trapped many in usurious debt.
And she points out the cultural optimism of Americans, who always want positive, upbeat fortunes in their cookies. Some restaurant customers get upset if they get bad fortunes, or ask for new ones or even demand refunds. One man loved fortune cookie fortunes so much that he invented a Fortune Album to store and display the little slips of paper. Fortunes have been as simple as "Remember, being happy is not always being perfect," enigmatic as "Buy a door. Sell a door. Open a door. Close a door. Adoor a door. Ignore a door." and nonsensical as "Half a prayer for waking up and using the toilet and the dead animal on the road." (I've kept two fortunes in my wallet for years: "You and your mate will be happy in your life together" and "Wise men learn by other men's mistakes; fools by their own.")
This book was a delight, something akin to Fast Food Nation meets The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy with a flavor of The Joy Luck Club. It made me hungry for Chinese food as well as appreciate the duality of Chinese American identity. I commend it highly.
(P.S. At the very end of the book, I noticed a reference to a name of someone I know from InterVarsity circles who went to college with the author. Small, small world, that I'm just one degree of separation away from her. I managed to find her via Facebook out of the hundreds of Jennifer Lees there! Cool to connect.)