Feb/Mar 2008

Sweet and Sour

Telling the story of Chinese food in america sends Jennifer 8. Lee around the globe.

Melanie Rehak


Confession: When I got a galley of Jennifer 8. Lee’s new book about the history of Chinese food in America, I imme­diately flipped to the back, hoping to find my name in the index. And by “my name,” I mean, of course, the name of “my” Chinese restaurant in upper Manhattan, the one where my parents often took my sister and me on Sunday nights for dinner when we were young. Like Lee, I grew up in New York, and without really meaning to, I’d devised a test of her authority the instant The Fortune Cookie Chronicles (Twelve, $25) hit my doorstep: If she didn’t know about Hunan Balcony (on Broadway between Ninety-seventh and Ninety-eighth streets—if reading this review makes you as hungry as reading Lee’s book made me, and you happen to be in the neighborhood), I was prepared to brand her a neophyte. Such is the devotion of patrons to their chosen Chinese joint, as my father used to call it.

The book doesn’t have an index, but fortunately, Lee has left literally no corner of the globe unexplored in her quest, and she begins, more or less, in our shared hometown. I had to read up only to page 31 before stumbling across the name of my beloved noodle palace in her chapter on the birth of Chinese-food delivery in New York in 1976, “The Menu Wars.” Oh, Hunan Balcony, what sweet memories of you I cherish. This was where I learned to eat with chopsticks and where my sister and I poured obscene amounts of sugar into our tea (she later learned Mandarin and moved first to Taiwan and then to Hong Kong, so something at least quasi-authentic must have remained at the bottom of those handleless cups). It was where my parents, a Czech immigrant and a midwestern transplant, ordered crispy beef and Buddha’s delight—as opposed to Lee’s Taiwanese parents, who, much to her and her siblings’ chagrin, “inevitably ordered dishes that had eyeballs”—as though they’d been born to it.

All of which proves Lee’s point perfectly: The proliferation of Chinese food in this country has made it as American as apple pie. Or as she puts it, perhaps a bit too cutely: “Ask yourself: How often do you eat apple pie? How often do you eat Chinese food?” At this point, the local Chinese takeout is as much a fact of life in Hiawassee, Georgia (population 850), where Lee goes to report on the difficulties of a young family who take over a restaurant in pursuit of the American dream, as it is in San Francisco. “Chinese restaurants are like gas,” she observes, “in that they expand to fill a vacuum. They have an enviable ability to take root in any community—urban or rural, cosmopolitan or isolated. If an environment can support life, then, like bacteria, a Chinese restaurant will find it.”

While it’s hard for me, as the veteran of some pretty suspicious-looking, cramp-inducing take-out Chinese food over the years, not to object just the tiniest bit to at least the gastronomic part of her assertion that you can “walk into any Peking Garden or China Buffet and . . . know you can get a reasonably tasty meal, served in healthy portions, for somewhere between five and ten dollars, no matter what region of the country you may be in,” such statements are clearly the product of Lee’s boundless enthusiasm for her subject. Often enough, her efforts to learn more are rewarded with new and interesting variations on her theme of Chinese-food-as-emblem-of-melting-pot-America; she also throws in the occasional fact that reads as though it’s ripe for a game of Trivial Pursuit: Chinese Food Edition. For example, we learn that in the premechanized days of fortune-cookie folding, a gifted folder could do about a thousand cookies per hour, and also the (oddly romantic) information that the Cuban Missile Crisis was partially resolved at a place called Yenching Palace in Washington, DC. Perhaps my favorite of these nuggets is Lee’s discovery that the Peking Gourmet Inn in suburban Virginia has a bulletproof window in front of one table because that’s where both Bush 41 and Bush 43 like to go for their fix. Can’t you just see them hunched over a steaming plate of lo mein, not talking about global warming and definitely not passing the hot sauce?

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is full of such tidbits, as well as a lot of chirpy theories and postulations mixed in with a great deal of fascinating and well-reported material on everything from the true origins of the fortune cookie (not China, but I won’t spoil it for you) to the invention of chop suey, the plight of the illegal immigrants who are the engines of the nearly forty thousand Chinese restaurants in the United States, the ways that open-source-code writing is like a loose network of Chinese restaurants, and many, many other topics related somehow to the main event. The book’s subtitle is Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, and it more than lives up to that billing. Lee is nothing if not an intrepid traveler, whether she’s seeking out the Lost Jews of Kaifeng or circling the globe in search of the best Chinese restaurant outside of China on a challenge from her editor (spoiler: It’s just outside Vancouver).

There is some disappointment along the way, but Lee has a sense of humor about it, for the most part. Arriving at the one-room home of one of China’s last remaining Jews, she longs for enlightenment and receives Borscht Belt shtick instead:

“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.”

Nevertheless, she soldiers on (if you’ll forgive me), looking for, among other things, the birthplace of General Tso (of chicken fame). Stopping off at a restaurant in rural Hunan province that advertises “high-quality dog meat,” she asks after the general’s birthplace: “The restaurant’s owner gave us a hand-drawn map. The route led us down a dirt road flanked by rice paddies and to the old home. . . . In the rice paddies near the house, I encountered two men from the general’s family . . . Zuo family members some five generations removed from the general. I asked them about General Tso’s chicken. They had never seen the dish. ‘No one here eats this.’” As a journalist, I shudder to think of the poor woman on her way home, a journey that involved “dodging mangy dogs, farmers pulling carts, young motor­cyclists, and plump chickens, creating the overall sensation of a live video game,” with very little to show for her troubles beyond some good local color.

On the other hand, she probably didn’t see it that way at all, as no detail about Chinese food is irrelevant to Lee, who is wise enough to admit she’s obsessed even as she remains occasionally blind to her excesses of spirit. Visiting the Fold-Pak company in Pennsylvania, maker of those ubiquitous white carry­out boxes, she sees a stack of rejects and has possibly the most overblown reaction since the vote to impeach Bill Clinton: “Take-out cartons are meant to be thrown away; but these virginal white boxes, which had never seen garlic sauce or roast pork grease, seemed almost free of original sin. Suddenly I understood why their loss was so unsettling: these boxes were stillborn—purposeless.”

Indeed, if there’s a criticism to be leveled at Lee, it’s that she can be at once absurdly conscious of her own journey and yet somehow still completely unself-aware, whether she’s talking about actual travel or something less quantifiable. “This book began as a quest to understand Chinese food. But three years, six continents, twenty-three countries, and forty-two states later,” she says somewhat breathlessly, “I realize it was actually a personal journey to understand myself.” OK, fair enough. It’s only natural for a child of immigrant parents to be interested in the role of their native culture in the country of her birth, especially when it’s so widespread that several years ago Powerball had to pay out more than twenty million dollars in one drawing thanks to people in twenty-nine states betting the numbers from the same fortune cookie and winning (this is Lee’s opening gambit, and it’s a fine one).

Still, subtlety is not her strong suit. I cringed when I read this cheery formulation: “We are a stir-fry; our ingredients remain distinct, but our flavors blend together in a sauce shared by all.” A reporter of Lee’s thoroughness and experience ought to be beyond substituting food for thought, no matter how mouthwatering it is.

Melanie Rehak is at work on Meet the Farmer, a book about food, family, and local farming. She is the author of Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her (Harcourt, 2005).

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