Book Review: Fortune Cookie Chronicles

The expression often cited to demonstrate patriotism is “as American as apple pie” but when was the last time you ate apple pie? Now compare that with your most recent meal of Chinese food.

For an immigrant group that was despised and feared from its earliest arrival on these shores (to date, the only group meriting a dedicated act by Congress, the Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882), the Chinese has made tremendous in-roads into the American society. Americans, and especially the Jews, have embraced Chinese food, both as takeout comfort meals as well as for celebratory occasions. But the beloved foods known as chop suey (now considered passé, but wildly popular in the years after World War II), fortune cookies, and General Tso’s chicken are as American-born as apple pie. In fact, an ill-fated endeavor to introduce fortune cookies to China in the 1990’s was met with abysmal failure, because the treat was considered “too American.” The tastes that Americans love— intensely sweet, crispy, deep-fried, and —are just not authentic Chinese ones.

The Powerball scandal of 2005 when 110 lottery winners nationwide all claimed to have obtained their winning sequences from a fortune cookie lead Jennifer 8. Lee to an journalistic investigation, from which she proceeded to write an intrigue-filled book on Chinese assimilation through the prism of food, titled The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. Ms. Lee is a reporter for the New York Times, a graduate of Harvard with degrees in applied mathematics and economics, and an American-born Chinese.

One chapter in her book is devoted to answering why have Jews embraced Chinese food? I learned from Ms. Lee’s book that there are academic treatises written on this subject, including a paper written by Gary Tuchman and Harry G. Levine called “Safe Treyf” (treyf being the Yiddish word for non-kosher food) in which they propose that of all the foods encountered in America, Chinese food was the most foreign, the most “un-Jewish.” Yet, writes Ms. Lee, “Jews defined this particular foreignness not as forbidding but as appealing, attractive, and desirable. Indeed, many Jews saw eating in Chinese restaurants as an antidote for Jewish parochialism, for the exclusive and overweening emphasis on the culture of the Jews as it had been.”

Hanna R. Miller in her paper, “Identity Takeout: How American Jews Made Chinese Food Their Ethnic Cuisine,” cited the geographic proximity between these two immigrant groups in New York City’s Lower East Side (ignoring the third ethnic group living in nearby Little Italy). Other scholars note the absence of dairy in Chinese cuisine, which makes it more easily compatible with kashrut (laws on kosher food preparation, specifically the forbidden mixing of meat and dairy ingredients) than Italian or French cuisine.

Ms. Lee even sought out a literary angle, quoting Philip Roth’s character, Portnoy, on his perspective on Chinese food: “Yes, the only people in the world whom it seems to me the Jews are not afraid of are the Chinese. Because, one, the way they speak English makes my father sound like Lord Chesterfield; two, the insides of their heads are just so much fried rice anyway; and three, to them we are not Jews but white—and maybe even Anglo Saxon. Imagine!”

Finally, the author traveled to China to seek someone who could speak with authority about both Chinese and Jewish cultures. There she met an 81-year-old Chinese woman who lived on Jiaojing Hutong or “Teaching Scriptures Alley” in Kaifeng, where the Jewish faith was known as “the religion which removes the sinew.” (The Jewish community of Kaifeng thrived from 1163 until the 1860s.) The author hoped that “she, being one of the rare Chinese Jews in the world today, would be able to shed light on a question that had vexed academics, bolstered comedy routines and intrigued Portnoy.

‘“Why,” I asked, “do Jews in America like Chinese food so much?”

With a glint in her eye, she slapped the wooden table.

She knew.

I leaned in. This was the insight for which I had traveled thousands of miles, walked along a highway at midnight, and scoured alleyways.

Her Buddhist koan-like response was profound in its simplicity:

“Because Chinese food tastes good.”’

Another chapter introduced the soy sauce trade dispute in which the Japanese delegation petitioned to the international trade regulatory organization to set standards for soy sauce, as the French has done for champagne, the Italians for Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and the Koreans for kimchee. However, these latter are known and consumed by few connoisseurs in comparison to the worldwide market for soy sauce. The version of “soy sauce” consumed by most Americans (most often served in little plastic packets distributed by Kari-Out, owned by the Epstein family of Westchester, NY) is not made from actual soybeans. Instead, its list of ingredients are: water, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, caramel coloring and corn syrup—essentially, thick, brown salty water. This is not an atypical story of the American alteration and mass-processing of foods from around the world, including beer, chocolate, and cheese (to the dismay and frustration of their original compatriots). After several years of hardball lobbying by the Americans, the Japanese quietly withdrew their petition in 2005. The Americans had won: soy sauce does not have to be made from whole soybeans.

There are other chapters with fascinating insights on how Chinese immigration has impacted American society. To find out the real deal on fortune cookies, check out Jennifer 8. Lee’s new book.

Photo credit: Rasa Malaysia