After digging a little more,  it turns out that Jennifer 8 Lee, of Fortune Cookie Chronicles fame, has a web site and the web site has a blog. At first glance, it’s much more fragmented a view than her far ranging book, but there are nuggets to be dug out of her posts. For one, she’s using Google ngrams to trace food trends through word usage, an idea that, when I saw it, struck me through as if an arrow had been driven through me.

Let’s take a quick look at a food fad. The one that first comes to mind is sushi. Did you know that in American English, the word “sushi” is now more common than the word “burger” or the words “apple pie”? Hey, I can show you that in a Google ngram. Switch the idiom of English you’re analyzing a bit,  to British English and you’ll see  different results. The chop suey fad disappears, for one, as does interest in food circa 2002-2003.

Interested in peppers? Checking out various pepper names shows a spike in interest in the word “tabasco” roughly about 1930. The word “jalapeno” takes off roughly about 1980, “habanero” about 1990. If you check out American and British English, you’ll see very different levels of interest, and a marked decline in interest among the British starting around the year 2000.

Obviously this kind of analysis isn’t restricted to foods. You can look at fabrics and plastics, or the effects electronic devices have on our language. That said, you can still compare “salsa” to “ketchup” and “granola” to the various Chinese foods that Jennifer Lee spoke about in such depth.

The book starts by examining the lottery: why was it that on March 30, 2005, there were so many lottery winners? When it began to emerge that the lotto winners had been betting the numbers on their fortune cookies, that sets the stage for Jennifer 8 Lee’s amazing book.

Certain books leave you euphoric, certain books strike you as profound. And while I didn’t get the same kind of intellectual high with “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” as I did with, say, “Godel, Escher, Bach” or “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, Jennifer 8 Lee’s book has an awful lot to say about what it is to be Chinese,  what is good Chinese, and the role and place of the vast array of hyphenated Chinese cuisines.

If you read nothing else, please read Chapter 14, the chapter titled “The Greatest Chinese Restaurant in the World.” In 40-someodd pages it encapsulates the food blogger’s dilemma. She’s really good about explaining each and every candidate restaurant, and then explaining her final choice. I would have picked differently, myself. It’s an interesting exercise trying to decide which one would have been your favorite.

Other than that it’s an education  in how Chinese restaurants work. It follows workers and families as they migrate from New York City to the rest of  the states, follows their troubles and pains. It talks about illegal immigration, and the regions of China most responsible for the girl who hands you your menus and cleans up your table.

The book talks evocatively about Chinese restaurants as spontaneous self-organizing networks, an open source food model as compared to the closed model of food chains, and also about the history of the fortune cookie, ending the search in 19th century Japan.

Yet, in the process, it remains light and breezy and accessible.

Verdict: a blogger must read. You don’t understand Chinese  critically – seriously, I don’t care how much of it you’ve personally cooked – as a cuisine until you read this thing.

Oh, yes, and afterwards, I just had to have Chinese. This is a lamb dish from the Chinese menu of Man Chun Hong.

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