Our Chinese food made with red, white and blue flavor

New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee is known as a master of the "conceptual scoop," a term coined to describe stories that take information that is already part of the public record and glean something new and interesting from it.

Lee uses these skills in her first book to show us something foreign in a familiar light. She discovers some new facts, and she makes a point that should have been obvious but is rarely stated with such clarity:

What most think of as Chinese food is really as American as, well, apple pie.

Starting with the creation of chop suey, which Lee describes as "the greatest culinary prank that one culture has ever played on another," Chinese immigrants in the United States reinvented Chinese food for the American palate, wallet and lifestyle.

Most of her culinary-focused chapters and narratives follow a similar pattern. Whether she's examining fortune cookies, General Tso's chicken, or the ubiquitous take-out box, what appears to be a emblematic of Chinese cuisine always turns out to be a distinctly American phenomenon.

When Lee sets out to find the world's greatest Chinese restaurant, she discovers the same pattern of adaptation and reinvention everywhere that large numbers of Chinese immigrants have settled. Chinese-Indian food, Chinese-Japanese food, Chinese-American food -- all are unique cuisines, all distinct from "true" Chinese food.

Lee's culinary research is well-supported and interesting, but in some ways these chapters are the weakest in the book. She tends to include a lot of details, and it's easy to become bogged down in a profusion of names, dates and geographic locations.

The book's nominal frame -- Lee's search for the origin of the fortune cookie -- is broken up throughout the book and follows the narrative of her research rather than the narrative of the fortune cookies themselves.

Consequently, I never got a clear picture of their transformation into the most Chinese of American desserts.

Fortunately, she isn't just interested in food, as her search takes her to Chinese restaurants, which starts a fascinating investigation of issues surrounding labor, family and identity. Lee demonstrates an extraordinary talent for illuminating larger historical, political and cultural issues through individuals' stories.

One particularly haunting example is the story of Michael Chen, one of the illegal immigrants aboard the Golden Venture, the steamer ship that foundered about 100 yards from New York's Rockaway Beach in 1993. Lee expands upon the controversy of the Golden Venture, exploring the facts of Chen's journey, as well as the many communities he belonged to: Illegal immigrant, legal resident, Fujianese, restaurant worker, restaurant owner.

His story explores the specific costs and rewards of the American dream.

One comment particularly resonates. Lee notes, "There is a fairly good chance that the Chinese restaurant worker who cooked your roast pork fried rice, or the woman who took your order on the phone, or the deliveryman who showed up at your door paid tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of doing so."

It is difficult to think of another example that so vividly portrays the connections between illegal immigration and everyday American culture.

Michael Chen is just one of hundreds of people whose stories she tells. These stories are complex and sometimes contradictory, but they are tied together by a common thread -- all of the people are hua. As Lee explains, "Hua ... means 'Chinese,' but with a sense that transcends the nation state." Hua "is the distilled essence of being Chinese."

Identity -- how it is formed, how it changes and what it means -- that is the real topic of Lee's book. Food is just a lens, at times useful, at times a little unwieldy.

Though "Fortune Cookie Chronicles" is far from a memoir, Lee clearly doesn't exaggerate when she calls the book a "personal journey to understand myself."

As debates about immigration have reached a new and unexpected fervor, this book is an insightful reminder that almost every question about American-ness will eventually lead us outside our national borders.

Restaurant critic China Millman can be reached at cmillman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1198.


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