by Jennifer 8. Lee
There are more Chinese restaurants in America than McDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC franchises combined. Many of the dishes they serve can’t be found in China but are considered staples to customers from Sarasota to Seattle. “Our benchmark for American-ness is apple pie,” says author Jennifer 8. Lee. “But ask yourself: How often do you eat apple pie? How often do you eat Chinese food?” Lee, a New York Times reporter and American-born child of Chinese immigrants, long took for granted the coast-to-coast ubiquity of lemon chicken and chop suey. But once a twist of fate started her asking questions about fortune cookies, she realized that the origins of the entire Chinese restaurant industry were shrouded in mystery. Who, for instance, created those beautiful cardboard takeout boxes that every Chinese restaurant uses? And who was General Tso?
The answers she’s come up with are so fascinating that “anyone who has ever eaten a single egg roll should read her book,” said Jessica Bernstein-Wax in the Associated Press. Lee travels the world to find the
best Chinese food outside China, and she tracks down a dwindling community of Chinese Jews in the city of Kaifeng, hoping to find out why American Jews seem to like Chinese food so much. Her tastiest findings concern the food itself, said Kate Ward in Entertainment Weekly. The fortune cookie, she found, is actually a Japanese invention that Chinese restaurateurs started spreading across America during World War II. Your average soy sauce, she tells us, contains no soybeans.
Lee’s “stir-fry of a book” can sometimes grow unwieldy, said Heller McAlpin in Newsday. Her narrative focus tightens, though, when she tells stories about the immigrants who work in America’s 43,000 Chinese restaurants. If you’re a Chinese immigrant who arrived illegally or speaks no English, said Jennie Yabroff in Newsweek, chances are your American dream will start by consulting cryptic restaurant job postings in New York City and raising bus fare to whichever area code catches your eye. Anyone who reads Lee’s book will recall such stories vividly, said Bich Minh Nguyen in the Chicago Tribune, the next time they open their doors to a guy bearing mu shu pork.
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