The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: A Half-Baked Tale That Leaves a Good Story Untold

05/25/2011 02:40 pm ET

Jennifer 8. Lee's recent book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is a bit like her subject matter: slightly enjoyable, but mostly bland, trite, and unworthy of the meal it evokes. The book is presented as an inquiry into the identity of Chinese food in America, but she unnecessarily mixes uninteresting passages of travelogue and memoir among her unconnected anecdotes about food.

Perhaps she brought herself into the text because there's no other connective tissue tying the book together: no thesis, no argument, no coherent organization for the stories. But her frequent "then I did this" interjections add nothing to the book, and distract from the stories. She has a good subject -- as she points out, while there's nothing more American than apple pie, most Americans eat apple pie a whole lot less than they order Chinese food -- and tells some good stories, from a kosher duck scandal at a Washington, DC kosher Chinese restaurant, to the surprising Japanese origins of the fortune cookie, to the sad fate of a family that bought a Chinese restaurant in Georgia but were torn apart by culture barriers and the grueling labor required to make it. (She has an abbreviated version of the story of the Golden Venture, the snakehead vessel that crash-landed several hundred illegal Chinese immigrants on New York's Rockaway beach in the first days of Bill Clinton's term, though that story is much better told in Patrick Radden Keefe's excellent book The Snakehead, rating: 80.)

But the good stories she's found don't survive the telling, mired in her uninsightful writing and self-congratulatory but insufficient reporting. She allows herself to end the restauranteurs' tale by saying that she doesn't know where they live any more. While telling the story of chop suey, she remarks how difficult it was to find a particular article she used -- and then mentions the difficulty again in an endnote. For a far better evocation of the joys of Chinese food, read Nicole Mones' novel The Last Chinese Chef (rating: 75). Stay away from this one.

Rating: 39

Crossposted at Remingtonstein.