Interview with Jennifer 8. Lee, Author of "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles"
By Steve Su
"Fortune Cookie is a sweet treat, told in a lively, engaging fashion by a writer who clearly knows, and loves, Chinese cuisine." - USA Today
That's just one of the glowing reviews the book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles has received since it was published in March 2008. Since then, it has been #26 on the New York Times Best Seller List and featured on numerous media outlets, such as The Colbert Report, CNN, and Newsweek. Asian Loop was lucky to get the opportunity to sit down with the author, Jennifer 8. Lee, to talk about her book.
On the surface, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles may just seem like a book about Chinese food. But in reality, it is so much more. "It's not really a food book. It's actually like a history book, but told through the lens of Chinese food," explains Lee. Starting with her quest to find how a Fortune cookie affected the multi-state Powerball lottery, Lee has traveled the world to find out more about Chinese food and how it has affected the American culture, its people, and even its history. For example, we find out how Chinese food became so popular among the Jewish community. We learn how racism played a role in driving Chinese immigrants into the restaurant business. Lee even explains how and why people from China come to the U.S. (both legally and illegally) only to become restaurant workers.
Ironically, the idea for Lee to become an author was not her own. Instead, people actually suggested that she try her hand at writing a book. And having met this knowledgeable and articulate woman in person, I can see why. So why Chinese food then? Unbeknownst to most, the fortune cookie actually is not a product of China. In fact, most people in China have never even seen a fortune cookie before. That is what started it all. "I wanted to find where fortune cookies are from," says Lee. "I wanted to understand Chinese people around the world and understand Chinese restaurants." And for Lee, it wasn't even just a matter of curiosity. "I was obsessed," Lee says, "and what's great about obsession is it gives you a manageable lens to look at the world through."
Through her adventures, Lee has learned a lot about herself. As she says in her book, "Three years, six continents, twenty-three countries, and forty-two states later, I realize it was actually a personal journey to understand myself." One of the key moments that made her feel this way was when she learned fortune cookies actually originated from Japan as oppose to China. However, it was the Chinese who were able to popularize them when World War II soldiers who were stationed overseas would ask for them in restaurants, especially since the Japanese were forced into internment camps at the time. "It showed me how entrepreneurial the Chinese are," Lee says. And even more importantly, it showed how Chinese food is a part of history. "It brought the book to a different level, " Lee explains. "It is very different from reading your American textbook about World War II."
Another such moment was when Lee realized that people from different regions of China tend to immigrate to different countries. "Seeing the mosaic brought together, I finally understood my role in the global Chinese diaspora. So I understood both my positions as a American and a Chinese person." She hopes her book will have a similar effect on other Chinese Americans as well. "I love the idea of Chinese Americans looking at this and understanding their place in the world," Lee says.
Having traveled the world, Lee has become familiar with Chinese food from many countries. Sadly, her take on the Chinese food in America is not very positive. "Chinese food in America is cooked that way because that's what Americans want," according to Lee. She touches on this in her book when she describes her quest to find the origin of one of the most popular Chinese dishes in America, General Tso's Chicken. "The most interesting and exciting Chinese food is not in America," she adds.
So not surprisingly, when asked about the future of Chinese restaurants in America, Lee did not have a very exciting outlook. "There will be more of them, and I don't know that they are going to get any better. So I think it is on a pretty static path. You need another revolution like Hunan or Szechuan cooking." Despite that though, she does foresee Chinese food becoming even more commonplace in our everyday lives. Lee explains, "The more dramatic thing you are going to see is the familiarity of Chinese food enter the American diet." For example, she notices the growing popularity of green tea and frozen dumplings in American kitchens.
Because The Fortune Cookie Chronicles covers so many aspects of Chinese food, it has received media coverage from a broad range of sources. From Maxim magazine to Readers' Digest, from Food and Wine to Bloomberg, from The Colbert Report to Good Morning America, Jennifer 8. Lee and her book have caught everyone's attention. "You have this really broad-based book that speaks to how universal Chinese food is," says Lee. And given how popular Chinese food is, it is easy to see her point. After all, the saying may be 'as American as apple pie', but as Lee put it, "When is the last time you had Chinese food and when is the last time you had apple pie?" In fact, this is one of the main ideas Lee wants to get across to her readers: "Make people think twice about what it means to be 'American'."
Unfortunately, for those who are waiting for Lee's next book, it may be a while. "I'm done", Lee replied emphatically when asked about any other upcoming books. But at least with The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, Lee has given us a meaningful insight into how our lives have been affected by something that is often taken for granted: Chinese food.
To find out more, you can visit Jennifer 8. Lee's website at http://www.fortunecookiechronicles.com/.
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