On the Page
Despite the intriguing topic of Chinese food, I did not find this book particularly engaging. I struggled to read more than ten pages at a time. Really, I felt as if it were about 100 pages too long. Lee's book spans nearly 300 pages and it read more like a high school research paper than a book penned by a professional journalist.
Still, her premise was interesting. Lee begins by telling a story about the Powerball lottery on March 30, 2005 when 110 people played the same numbers - from their fortune cookies - and ending up splitting a pot worth $19 million. "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?" (pg. 13). So, she asks, how did those cookies come to be served in every Chinese restaurant in the country?!?
In Real Life
I wasn't inspired into the kitchen after reading Lee's book. Still, I thought about whipping up some Chop Suey which is another American invention. Instead I decided to post a few photos of the food tour we took in which we visited the fortune cookie factory in the alley in San Francisco. Lee actually wrote about the very same shop: Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company in Ross Alley.
"Today, the sweet, heavy smell of opium has been replaced by the fragrant scent of vanilla, luring tourists rather than sin seekers. ...Day after day, two elderly Chinese women fold hot fortune cookie wafer, their fingertips toughened by years of sticky heat. They sit next to a fortune cookie machine, and the scene is strictly Willy Wonka meets Dickens..." (pg 84).
"...spigots squirt out circles of batter, which are then whisked on a conveyor belt into a dark tunnel lit by blue gas flames. The women pick up the toasted wafers emerging from the tunnel and pinch them into the familiar crescent shape as they tuck the fortune neatly inside" (pg. 84).
These two women can fold nearly 1,000 cookies an hour. Yong Lee, a Korean engineer, created the "Fortune III, a Rube Goldbergian machine.... 2,500 pound, six-foot cube of hot steel, fans, conveyor belts, and robotic arms needed only to be fed: five pounds of flour, twenty-five pounds of sugar, a few gallons of oil, a quart or so each of vanilla and water and one hundred egg whites" (pg. 86). The Fortune III churns out fifty percent more than the Ross Alley women. Then there's the Kitamura machine that makes 6,000 cookies per hour.
I will definitely look at the fortune cookie differently from now on. Typically I don't eat them and don't even crack them open. But, I will in the future. And I'll remember how they became a ubiquitous feature in every American Chinese restaurant.
Here's what everyone else read in August 2017: here.