As American as Apple Pie
In the midst of her book tour for Fortune Cookie Chronicles, Jennifer 8. Lee sits down to talk about Americans' taste for Chinese food and book publishers' distaste for child porn.
Published: Friday, April 04, 2008
Jennifer 8. Lee loves Chinese food, and not just traditional, "real" cuisine either. General Tso's chicken delights her.
The product of this love and three years of reporting and research is her new book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. While working full-time as a metro reporter for The New York Times, Lee traveled to and ate at Chinese restaurants ghetto and glamorous, across the United States and around the world.
In the book, Lee traces the origins of presumably "Chinese" dishes, such as chop suey, which Lee called "the biggest culinary joke played by one culture on another;" General Tso's chicken, whose West Coast equivalent is orange chicken; and fortune cookies, which appear to have come from Japan.
Chinese food in America, Lee said, may be considered foreign but many of the dishes are original to America. An indigenous foreign cuisine, she called it, which tends to be battered, fried and sweet.
"It's American. It just looks Chinese," Lee wrote in the first chapter.
Because as much as the mainstream changes immigrants, she said, immigrants also change the mainstream, and Chinese food is a perfect example of the convergence. It also serves as a backdrop to discuss issues of Chinese immigration and assimilation.
"The ultimate point of my book is that it's meant to make people think twice about what it means to be American," Lee said.
The following is an edited and condensed transcript of an interview with Lee.
Asia Pacific Arts: So the book stemmed from the Powerball-fortune cookie numbers incident?
Jennifer 8. Lee: It's the conceit that I use in the book, but it's actually originally based on an article that I did on a Chinese family that came from Fujian to New York and then went to Georgia. So it's like chapter 13 [in the book]. But that isn't exciting.
APA: Then what prompted you to write the book?
J8L: Someone said, "Have you thought about writing a book?" At that point, the answer was "huh, no." And then I started thinking like, well, what do I want to write a book upon? And then I was like: child porn. Because I had done a lot of research on child porn at that point and I really felt that it was an interesting, epic story that you could tell and hadn't been really told right. And the [book] agents were all, like, no.
So then I had to go back and think, well, what could I write a book about? Because you have to spend three years of your life on it. You have to be really passionate about it to do it, and it ended up being this.
APA: Chinese food is a great topic, but the book is not just about fortune cookies and chop suey.
J8L: Yeah, I always knew it had some element of American Dreamness. It was actually at the point where I learned there were more Chinese restaurants than McDonald's, Burger Kings, Wendy's combined [in the United States] that I realized there's a bigger idea here. It's not just this niche, quirky thing.
People are really fascinated by Chinese food because it's something that's familiar and exotic, and that's a perfect combination for a book, right? Because it's something that everyone relates to, but they can still learn about, learn from.
APA: What do you see as future trends in Chinese food in America?
J8L: I would say things that we think as traditionally Chinese make their way into American palates. So, soy milk. Now you can get soy latte at Starbucks. Tofu, tofu burger. Things like that will gradually make their way into the American palate.
But separately, it's going to be a while before we see the same high-class Chinese food in America that we did in the late 1960s, early 1970s. It's just not going to happen for all kinds of reasons.
APA: Such as?
J8L: Right now Chinese food in the minds of Americans is something cheap and so it's really hard to get them to think of paying a lot of money for fine Chinese cuisine. You have to mix it with something -- Asian fusion. But it's really hard.
A lot of people have tried but there has not been a really successful high-end Chinese restaurant in America in a long time. But there's one in London, two in Australia, one in Dubai.
APA: How can high-end Chinese restaurants succeed?
J8L: A restaurant is a combination of two things: food and theater. Chinese people care about the food, not the theater. Americans care about the theater and the food, and a great restaurant is both theater and food. Unless you can find a sustainable population of Americans that value Chinese food for its food and its theater and its innovativeness, it's just not going to happen. Like there's no Nobu of Chinese food in the horizon, though maybe... There's one in London: Alan Yau.
APA: Why do high-end Chinese restaurants succeed overseas?
J8L: Well, there are two things. One, Paris; because there are not that many Chinese people, Chinese food can still be a little bit exotic. If you go to countries where there are very few Chinese people, Chinese restaurants are fancy.
And two, Alan Yau is interesting because what he did is make Chinese food sexy. His food is actually pretty good, but it's really a Sex and the City kind of thing. It's like the restaurant is beautiful. The drinks are hot. Everyone there is, like, gorgeous. Your waiter is gorgeous. You know, that kind of situation.
APA: Asian waiters?
J8L: No, the guy -- it was interesting. A black man from France was my waiter.