After 110 people took second place in a 2005 Powerball lottery by picking five of six correct numbers, the sequence they all played was traced back to a fortune-cookie factory in Queens which had printed them on a recent fortune. A New York Times reporter named Jennifer 8. Lee, assigned to report on the story, wound up increasingly curious about the diners who played the numbers. As a second-generation Chinese-American, Lee grew up fetching Chinese takeout and wondering why her mother's cooking never resembled the contents of the classic white cartons; for The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures In The World Of Chinese Food, she traces the history of Chinese food in America with trenchant, but entertaining, curiosity.
While Lee's obsession with Chinese food began long before the fortune-cookie lottery, her travels to find the Powerball winners, and the restaurants where they dined, led her to trace the paths of other takeout accoutrements, like soy-sauce packets and home delivery. (That started in 1976, thanks to the enterprising owner of a failing restaurant.) Her explorations into different aspects of the Chinese-restaurant industry in America—from the moment where she sees the ancestral home of the real General Tso, who undoubtedly never tasted or cooked the dish that bears his name, to interviews with restaurant workers from Fujian province, who paid more than $40,000 to come to America to work—form a peripatetic itinerary, with each piece closer in tone to the wide-eyed how-stuff-works musings of Freakonomics than a direct path to takeout enlightenment. If any aspect of her quest unites the book's disparate scenes, it's Lee's investigation into the history of the fortune cookie, a food that probably isn't Chinese, might be part Japanese, and is certainly beloved of Americans.
Lee's guiding principle—that American Chinese food from chop suey to Seamless Web has taken on a life beyond its national origins—sidesteps, for the most part, the globalizing implications of a plate of beef and broccoli, in favor of tastier tidbits on inland migration and the kosher Chinese kitchen. Her fascination with the origins of her childhood dinners turns up an assortment of intriguing characters, but the most riveting is the author, who has lived in China and knows what "real" Chinese cuisine looks and tastes like, but is drawn to its evolved—some might say bastardized—American form anyway.