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Celebrating Chinese Food in American Culture

Excerpted with permission from The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food By Jennifer 8. Lee

As far back as 1942, chop suey and chow mein were added to the U.S. Army cookbook. Jonas Salk, while developing the polio vaccine in the early 1950s, would eat his lunch at Bamboo Garden on Forbes Avenue, near the University of Pittsburgh, nearly every day. He always ordered the same thing: a bowl of wonton soup, an egg roll, rice, and chicken chow mein made with homegrown bean sprouts--all for $1.35.

Chinese restaurants are sought out for special events, too. In 1961, before the Freedom Riders left for the first fateful bus ride through the Deep South to protest segregation, a number of that company met for dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Washington. "Someone referred to this meal as the Last Supper," said John Lewis, then a young theology student from rural Georgia, later a congressman. In October 1962, emissaries for John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev met secretly at Yenching Palace in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington to work out a solution to the Cuban missile crisis. Chinese restaurants were neutral territory.

Nearly everyone has a go-to Chinese restaurant. Dwight Eisenhower ordered his chicken chop suey from Sun Chop Suey Restaurant on Columbia Road in Washington, D.C., for decades. When he became president, the FBI investigated every employee at the restaurant (just as a precaution). Likewise, Peking Gourmet Inn outside Falls Church, Virginia, had to install a bulletproof glass window near table N17. That is where the Bushes, both father and son, sit at their favorite Chinese restaurant.

It's not surprising that the Powerball officials heard the same tale repeated over and over again across the twenty-nine states, from coast to coast. The stories were different. The stories were the same. It was takeout. It was sit-down. It was an all-you-can-eat buffet. It happened years ago, months ago, earlier that day. It was dinner. It was lunch. It was where they ate every week with coworkers. It was on a family vacation to a neighboring state. The number had been in a fortune cookie they had cracked open themselves. The number had been on a fortune found while cleaning a car or waiting at a convenience-store counter. But the one thing all those stories had in common was the starting point: a meal from a Chinese restaurant that had ended with a fortune cookie.

The lottery story ran in AM New York, the commuter daily I picked up one morning to read on the New York City subway. The one-paragraph article said the March 30 Powerball had been pummeled with an unusually large number of winners, 110 in all, largely because of fortune cookies.

I perked up.

I am obsessed with Chinese restaurants. Like many Americans, I first discovered them in my childhood. I grew up during the 1980s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where Broadway is sometimes called Szechuan Alley for the density of Chinese restaurants along it. My parents had first settled in the area when my father was studying for his Ph.D. at Columbia University; because my mom never learned to drive, our family never moved out of the city. As a result, I was raised not too far in time and place from many of the changes that revolutionized Chinese food in the United States.

My siblings and I are known as ABCs, American-born Chinese. We're also known as bananas (yellow on the outside but white on the inside) and Twinkies (which has more of a pop-culture but processed ring to it). There are a lot of inside jokes among immigrant families. My family even has one embedded in the children's names. My parents named me Jennifer; my sister is Frances; my brother is Kenneth. If you string together our first initials, you get JFK, which, my parents tease, is the airport they landed at when they first came to America.

My parents arrived in the United States courtesy of the Immigration Reform Act of 1965, which opened the doors to educated and skilled workers like my father and dramatically shifted the balance of immigration away from Europe. Countries like Taiwan, South Korea, and India stood ready to offer the best products of their meritocratic educational systems.

My mom took care of the home and did most of the cooking, while my father worked on Wall Street. But like many families in our area, we'd order Chinese takeout when she was too busy to cook. As a girl I would run down to the neighborhood Chinese restaurant with a crisp twenty-dollar bill in my pocket. Barely tall enough to see past the counter, I'd solemnly order dishes from the big white menu, using the Chinese names that my mom had carefully taught me. (Without exception, the vocabulary words that Chinese-American kids--and immigrant kids in general--know best are almost always related to food.)

Then I'd lug home my treasure: a plastic bag of steaming, generously stuffed trapezoidal white cartons. Our family gathered around the table as we pulled out the boxes, each one bursting with the potential of anonymity. Out came chopsticks, the little clear packets of black soy sauce, and crunchy fortune cookies. Each untucking of the lid released a surge of aroma and a sight to spark the appetite. Would it be the amber-colored noodles of roast pork lo mein? The lightly sweetened crispiness of General Tso's chicken nestled in a bed of flash-cooked broccoli? Or the spicy red chili oils of mapo tofu? Virginal white rice would be doused with steaming sauces, the mingling of simmered soy sauce, piquant vinegar, slivers of ginger, and fragrant garlic. The Chinese food begged to be mixed together: sweet, sour, salty, and savory flavors layering upon one another. They tasted even better the next day when the leftovers were reheated. We'd break open the fortune cookies for the message inside, rarely eating the cookie. The cheerfully misspelled, awkwardly phrased, but wise words of the Chinese fortune cookie sages gave me comfort. My parents' bookshelves were lined with Chinese philosophical classics like Confucius's Analects and the I Ching. For a girl who could not untangle the thicket of Chinese characters in those opaque and mysterious books, the little slips of insight represented the distillation of hundreds of years of Chinese wisdom.

Then came a shocking revelation.

Fortune cookies weren't Chinese.

It was like learning I was adopted while being told there was no Santa Claus. How could that be? I had always believed in the crispy, curved, vanilla-flavored wafers with the slips inside.

It was through reading The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan when I was in middle school that I first became aware of the mass deception. In one tale, two Chinese women find jobs in a San Francisco fortune cookie factory, where one is utterly perplexed when she learns that the cookies and their cryptic messages are considered Chinese.

I asked my mom if she had known all along that fortune cookies weren't Chinese. She shrugged. She said when she first got to the United States from Taiwan, she'd assumed they were from Hong Kong or mainland China. China is a large and fractured place. She had never been to mainland China. Neither had I.

The Americanness of fortune cookies hit home a few years later, in a 1992 front-page story in the New York Times with the headline "A Fortune Will Greet You in an Endeavor Faraway." The article announced that Brooklyn-based Wonton Food was to sell fortune cookies in China. It added that in Hong Kong, the cookies were already being marketed as "genuine American fortune cookies."

The Americanness of fortune cookies should have served as a hint for what else I was to learn about Chinese food. Only now, looking back, do I find it obvious. As a child, I never considered it strange that the food we ordered from Chinese restaurants didn't quite resemble my mom's home cooking. My mom used white rice, soy sauce, garlic, scallions, and a wok. But she never deep-fried chunks of meat, succulent and soft, then drenched them with rich, flavorful sauce. She cooked with ingredients that were pickled and dried and of strange shapes and never appeared on the takeout menu. Her kitchen was filled with jars and bags of all sorts of unusual things--white fungus, red beans, pungent black mushrooms, porous lotus roots. She used preserved foods: eerily translucent thousand-year-old eggs, spicy pickled bamboo shoots, vinegared mustard greens. Her dishes involved bones and shells--sweet-and-sour ribs, boiled garlic shrimp, chicken feet.

At the open seafood storefronts of Manhattan's Chinatown, my parents would pick through the bins of live crabs, sluggish but still menacing to a wide-eyed six-year-old girl. We would haul the writhing creatures back home in thin plastic bags and deposit them in the kitchen sink. We would steam the life out of them in my mother's decade-old wok, their waving pincers gradually slowing to a halt as their bodies became progressively red and orange. The Chinese holistic approach to crab was not the sanitized, edited version of Red Lobster. Our crabs burst forth with weird colors and textures. The goopy orange paste, called gao, was the best part, my mom told me.

My parents were always annoyed when we went to the "real Chinese restaurants" in Flushing, Queens, and I asked for my favorite dishes, beef with broccoli and lo mein. They inevitably ordered dishes that had eyeballs, like steamed whole fish with ginger and scallions. For a girl who was more familiar with the pleasantly geometric fish-fillet sandwiches of her elementary school cafeteria, the piscine servings were unnerving. Instead of eating this fish that had been merrily swimming in the tank just minutes before, I turned my chopsticks to the comforting crisp green broccoli, tender slices of beef, and soft amber noodles. My siblings and I turned up our noses at the bitter hot tea. We either added sugar or insisted on having cups of ice water. My parents were exasperated. They had thrown their children into a pool of cultural heritage in America: Chinese Saturday school, Chinese camp, Chinese chorus, Chinese martial arts, and Chinese folk dancing. (Perhaps 90 percent of all Chinese-Americans girls have twirled a silk ribbon at some point in their lives.) Yet on the issue of food, our taste buds were firmly entrenched. They groused about our inability to appreciate "real Chinese food."

I never really understood what "real Chinese food" meant until I went to China. Years of study in Chinese Saturday school, daily classes in college, and a semester in Taiwan had opened up the world of the dense opaque characters of my mother's books. China was a foreign country to me, but one where I happened to speak the language. Ostensibly I spent my fellowship year studying at Beijing University, but in reality I was educating myself by traveling cross-country from the deserts of Inner Mongolia to the lakes of Sichuan to the peaks of Tibet. Alongside the Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and KFCs that have penetrated China's core, I encountered a variety of cuisines that were more akin to my mom's cooking than the ones of America's Chinese restaurants: more vegetables, less meat, less oil. I began spitting bones out onto the table and drinking watery soup after a meal to wash it all down. I even drank hot tea--no fortune cookies to be found. I began to roll my eyes at the takeout Chinese food I had grown up with; it wasn't authentic.

But as interesting as the local food was to me, I was interesting to the locals. You could see their minds processing: She looks perfectly Chinese. She speaks Chinese perfectly. But something is amiss. Perhaps it was the way I moved, the way I laughed, the way I dressed. I wasn't, they felt, of China. Hong Kong? Taiwan? they asked.

"I'm American," I explained.

Their reply: "No, you're Chinese. You were just born in America."

Jennifer 8. Lee's website is http://www.FortuneCookieChronicles.com

Her bio can be found at http://www.hachettebookgroupusa.com/authors/72/3933/index.html


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