Thursday, September 04, 2008

READER'S CORNER: Three Books on Chinese Cooking & Restaurants (i)


[[EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part i of a triple book review, the second and third parts of which can be read by clicking here and here respectively.]]

Jennifer 8. Lee. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2008. 320 pages. ISBN-13: 9780446580076. Clothbound $24.99.

Jen Lin-Liu. Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey through China. San Diego & New York: Harcourt 2008. 352 pages. ISBN-13: 9780151012916. Clothbound $24.00.

Nicole Mones. The Last Chinese Chef. Boston: Houghton Mifflin 2007. 278 pages. ISBN-13: 9780618619665. Clothbound $24.00.

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In this review I continue, without apology, to look at books about Chinese cooking, because I firmly believe that the cuisine of any people, properly queried, can tell you an enormous amount about them; and also, of course, specifically because cha dao is the intersection of cuisine with a number of other important aspects of culture -- aesthetics, religion, philosophy, history, sociology, and of course such endeavors as agriculture and economics.

I have several reasons for grouping these books together for review. The third title, a novel, while illuminating to a reading of the other two, will have its own contours and (to a certain extent) its own unique concerns. But the first two, both of which are memoirs of a sort, are closely parallel in some interesting ways. Both are first single-authored books, both are upward of 300 pages, both have photographs of chopsticks and soy sauce on their covers, and both are by young women named Jen/nifer; but these are the relatively trivial resemblances. Each book is dedicated to its author's parents, which is significant in ways that will shortly emerge.

The really interesting similarities arise in the further comparison of their authors: both were born in the USA to parents of Chinese origin, both have fathers with PhDs, both speak fluent Mandarin, both were graduated from Ivy League schools, both found work after college as journalists; and, around the turn of the millennium, both traveled to Beijing, to learn more about the food and culinary traditions of China.

Here their paths diverge. One author (Lee) lives in New York, where she continues to write for the New York Times. The other (Lin-Liu) expatriated to China, where she co-authored Frommer's Beijing and writes for Time Out Beijing. And this divergence is part and parcel of the disparate goals and approaches of each book.

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The Fortune Cookie Chronicles takes the fortune cookie as a sort of shorthand for the Chinese restaurant in America. As well it might, since fortune cookies were popularized (though not invented) in the USA, and only a few years ago were imported to China for the first time. The fortune cookie is in some ways a convenient emblem for the whole experience of encountering Chinese culture, in America, via Chinese cuisine: it conforms more to perception and fantasy than to actuality. Some of the specific ways in which this is so, and precisely how those came to be, are the principal topics of this book.

Jennifer 8. Lee, whose middle name is indeed printed as the numeral 8 (an auspicious number in Chinese culture), writes in an engaging, reportorial style that sustains the excitement of her quest for the facts of the matter. Her book, while not losing sight of its larger theme, lends itself to episodic reading, since its eighteen chapters are for the most part each focused on a discrete topic. In the process she follows a number of trails, often in improbable directions, that conduce to a more elaborate picture of how Americans (especially) have come to the notion they have of Chinese cuisine -- and thus, in some fundamental ways, the notion they have of Chinese culture. Though they never cause her writing to become dry or technical, she has plenty of statistics to hand: for example, 'There are some forty thousand Chinese restaurants in the United States -- more than the number of McDonalds', Burger Kings, and KFCs combined' [p. 9]; or 'In New York City there were six Chinese restaurants in 1885. Less than twenty years later, in 1905, there were more than one hundred chop suey restaurants between Fourteenth and Forty-fifth Streets and Third and Eighth Avenues' [p. 57].

Chapter 2, 'The Menu Wars,' traces back to its putative origin the much-deplored habit (especially in New York City) of littering apartment and condominium buildings with menus for takeout and delivery food. By the 1990s this had become such a pesky problem that signs proclaiming NO MENUS! -- sometimes with angry expletives added -- were commonly to be seen on the front doors of such buildings. Lee not only identifies the first Manhattan restaurateur ever to offer door-to-door food delivery (Misa Chang), crediting her with the strategy of distributing menus in each apartment, but also makes the ingenious connection between this procedure and its internet-age avatar: spamming.

Chapter 4 describes chop suey as 'the biggest culinary prank that one culture has ever played on another.' 'Even its name is an inside joke of sorts. What Americans once believed to be the "national dish" of China translates to "odds and ends" in Cantonese' [p. 49]. For the origins of this phenomenon, Lee must travel back in time to the nineteenth century, where she finds examples of what Edward Said would have called Orientalism in its most lurid form: an article in the New York Times for 1 August 1883, for example, reopens the question of whether 'Chinamen love rats as Western people love poultry' [Lee, pp. vii, 50]. The defense attorney for the (white) leader of a race-riot in 1865 'defended his client's behavior by informing the judge, "Why, sir, these Chinamen live on rice, and, sir, they eat it with sticks!"' [p. 54]. Most Americans have probably not even heard of the Chinese Exclusion Act, 'passed in stages between 1882 and 1902, which restricted Chinese immigration and prevented Chinese arrivals from becoming naturalized citizens. It would be the only law in American history to exclude a group by race or ethnicity' [p. 56]. This racist program of exclusion had inevitable effects on the integration of Chinese immigrants into US society, relegating them to the operation of laundries -- and restaurants. Why did these jobs remain open to Chinese workers in the US? 'Cooking and cleaning were both women's work,' opines Lee. 'They were not threatening to white laborers' [p. 57].

It was in the restaurants above all that these first Chinese immigrants found a viable occupation on US soil: the purveyance of a dish called chop suey:
In a cooking tradition hostile to excessive spices, sharp flavors, and "foreign" ingredients, chop suey meant new textures. Thin, squiggly white bean sprouts. Crispy, round water chestnuts. Gravy! New York City had gone "chop suey mad." Chop suey parlors lined the streets of downtown Brooklyn, Washington, and Des Moines. Instead of the Yellow Peril, the Chinese-Americans had been transformed into benign restaurateurs selling a saucy vegetable-and-meat concoction. [p. 58]
But what is chop suey, exactly? The term 杂碎 (shap sui in Cantonese, za sui in Mandarin) is mentioned in Chinese literature as early as the classic 西遊記 Journey to the West (Ming dynasty, 1590s), where in chapter 75 it refers to a dish of cooked offal. But this description bears scant resemblance to 'chop suey' as popularized in US Chinese restaurants throughout the twentieth century. But where did the dish originate? and what does its name actually mean? These are the sorts of questions that get Lee going. She has done plenty of homework, including research in scholarly journals, and she offers a buffet of theories. She collects tales of California railroad workers (or miners?) inducing a Chinese cook to whip up a quick dish for them, which he inventively assembles from whatever leftovers he had on hand; of a banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1896, at which a similar nonce dish is prepared for 李鴻章 Li Hongzhang, a high-ranking Chinese diplomat visiting the US; of a 'chop suey injunction' filed in New York City in 1904 by a cook named Lem Sen, who claimed to have invented the recipe himself in San Francisco. The readers is left to select h/er own favorite version, but Lee believes that 'the historical evidence seems to point to chop suey first becoming popularized in New York City' [p. 64].

Chapter 5, 'The Long March of General Tso,' grapples with a particularly interesting question: how did General Tso's Chicken, arguably 'the most popular Chinese chef's special in America' [p. 67], come into being? To delve into the origins of this dish, Lee embarks on a long march of her own, traveling to Hunan Province, the birthplace of 左宗棠 Zuo Zongtang, a 'great scholar-warrior ... a crusher of rebellions against the imperial Qing court, an elder statesman who held modern Chinese territory together' [p. 66]. Once in Hunan, however, Lee is in for a surprise: 'The refrain was consistent: "We don't have General Tso's chicken here" or 'We've never heard of it." Even after I showed them pictures of the dish on my digital camera, they would frown and look at me blankly, then helpfully suggest another chicken dish ...' [p. 68]. Would this turn out to be another fortune cookie, another chop suey -- another faux-Chinese dish fabricated to please the American palate?

Lee forges ahead, intrepid, to Zuo's ancestral village in rural Hunan. After a madcap automobile drive through the Hunan countryside, she finds Xiangyin county, which a billboard proclaims as '"a famous Qing Dynasty county and home to Zuo Zongtang"' [p. 70]. A helpful restaurant-owner, who like the others does not recognize the eponymous chicken dish, nonetheless offers Lee a hand-drawn map guiding her to the general's family home. It has been abandoned, but nearby she encounters two men from the Zuo family. She asks them about General Tso's Chicken: '"no one here eats this," said Zuo Kuanxun, a faded sixty-six-year-old farmer. Zuo Ziwei shrugged as well' [p. 71].

At length she turns up a clue: the general manager of Xinchangfu Restaurant, in Changsha, tells her that the dish was introduced in Changsha by a Chef Peng in the 1990s. Peng, who had fled from China to Taiwan in 1949, opened a restaurant in New York in around 1970; but, finding this work too stressful, he returned to Taiwan in the early 1980s. Traveling to Taipei, Lee hunts down Chef Peng's son, Chuck Peng, who by now is the manager of Peng Yuan. Peng serves Lee a dish of General Tso's -- but she is deeply disappointed to discover that this was not the meal she was expecting at all: salty, flavored with soy sauce and chilis, but not battered and fried, and not sweet/tangy as it is served in the US. Eventually Lee meets the legendary Chef Peng himself:
He recounted that he had created the original dish in perhaps 1955 or 1956, on the island of Taiwan, after the Nationalists had been ousted by the Communists. He had named it after the general because he had wanted to use a symbol of Hunan: the other great Hunan figure, Mao Zedong, was obviously persona non grata. [p. 82]
But under close questioning, the disgusted Chef Peng confirms that his original recipe is radically different from the 'Chinese' dish so famous in America. The hunt continues -- now back to New York City, where Lee uncovers an old rivalry between Chef Peng and one Chef Wang. Wang's partner, Michael Tong, recalls how he and Wang had visited Peng Yuan in Taipei, and had been inspired by Peng's chicken dish. 'In response, Chef Wang had created his own general's chicken dish, but with an American twist' [p. 81]: coating the meat with a crispy fried batter. Wang named his version 'General Ching's chicken' (after 曾國藩 Zeng Guofan, another Qing-era general and statesman, and in fact Zuo's mentor; perhaps some confusion between 'Zeng' and 'Qing' accounts for the 'Ching' here.) Somehow, Lee posits, the name of General Tso's Chicken became associated with this recipe instead.

Other chapters proffer equally interesting material, such as the inside story of the Great Kosher Duck Scandal of 1989 (chapter 7), or the origin of the white cardboard takeout carton, so ubiquitous in Chinese restaurants in America (chapter 9). Occasionally Lee will shift registers to tell a more somber tale, as in 'Waizhou, U.S.A.' (chapter 13), the story of a Chinese family that immigrates, piecemeal, to America, where they purchase an existing Chinese restaurant in Hiawassee, Georgia. Lee chronicles the ups and (especially) downs of this family as they try to get accustomed to living in a strange land and to figure out how to run a Chinese restaurant in a way that will attract an American clientele. But while it never loses sight of the serious foci that gave it birth, for the most part the book is upbeat and even humorous. Lee is master of the entertaining anecdote. She tells the story, for example, of her friend, Lulu Zhou, who when young had 'glimpsed her parents' green cards with their photos and RESIDENT ALIEN stripped along the top. At the time, Star Trek: The Next Generation was popular, so the idea of extraterrestrials was in her head. "Are my parents aliens?" she thought in shock' [p. 23]. It is with Lulu that she samples the chow mein sandwiches (!) at Chan's Egg Roll and Jazz in Woonsocket, Rhode Island.

One of the most revealing portions of the book investigates the culinary and commercial ingenuity of chef Ming Tsai, the founder/owner of the famous Blue Ginger restaurant outside of Boston, who is now also a television personality ('Simply Ming') and creator of a line of food items featured at Target stores (chapter 15, 'American Stir-fry'). Tsai's story mirrors Lee's in some interesting ways: he was born in the USA to Chinese immigrants, and himself attended an Ivy-League university. 'I related in Ming in part,' Lee says, 'because I saw parallels between my own modest cooking efforts and Ming's sophisticated recipes -- cooking grounded in Chinese tradition but heavily influenced by the cuisines of other parts of Asia, with another layer from the Euro-American tradition' [p. 253].
But there were other similarities, ones that ran deeper than what we did in our kitchens. In one of our conversations, Ming told me, "If I can give my kids at least what my parents gave me, then that is the definition of a true success."
         I reflected on his words. What his parents gave him set him apart from most of the other Chinese in the restaurant industry I had met. Many of them had told me, "We cook so our children won't have to." Ming began to cook because he wanted to, not because he had to.
         Once my father brought dinner to a family friend who was too ill to leave her apartment on the Upper West Side. When he entered the building with a plastic bag of Chinese takeout, the doorman said to him, "No flyers on the floor."
         My father is just a Ph.D. away from being a deliveryman. I'm just an education away from jotting down take-out orders.
         In coming to the United States, what my parents gave me and my siblings is the freedom of choice. I write for a living because I want to. Sometimes I stop and think how odd it is that I earn my income wrestling with a language that my own parents struggled so much with. When I was young, my dad's company paid for him to have private lessons to remove the harsh angles of his Chinese accent. I still remember falling asleep to the sound of his practicing his short a -- "cat," "can," "cab" -- into a tape recorder, his tongue struggling to stretch out to let the vowel out. [pp. 254-5]
This moving testimony, I think, illuminates Lee's ultimate reason for exploring this topic: it clears a path to the self. By exploring the curious, convoluted, sometimes mysterious history of another Chinese transplant to America -- Chinese food -- she is able to discover some of the profound truths of her own family's transplantation to the US, and what that says about her present life -- and portends for her future.

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles saves one of its best revelations almost for last. I mentioned above that fortune cookies were not invented in America. So where did they come from? I will not spoil the mystery for you, but the answer is a fascinating one, rooted in some dire historical events.

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[[This is part i of a triple book review, the second and third parts of which can be read by clicking here and here respectively.]]

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