The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

Adventures in the World of Chinese Food


By Jennifer B. Lee

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If you think McDonald’s is the most ubiquitous restaurant experience in America, consider that there are more Chinese restaurants in America than McDonalds, Burger Kings, and Wendys combined. New York Times reporter and Chinese-American (or American-born Chinese). In her search, Jennifer 8 Lee traces the history of Chinese-American experience through the lens of the food. In a compelling blend of sociology and history, Jenny Lee exposes the indentured servitude Chinese restaurants expect from illegal immigrant chefs, investigates the relationship between Jews and Chinese food, and weaves a personal narrative about her own relationship with Chinese food.

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles speaks to the immigrant experience as a whole, and the way it has shaped our country.


Copyright © 2008 by Jennifer 8. Lee

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.


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First eBook Edition: March 2008

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For Mom and Dad, who left their homeland so their children could follow their passions, and for all the other moms and dads who have done the same

Do the Chinese eat rats? This has always been a mooted question. Geographies contain the assertion that they do, and an old wood-cut of a Chinaman peddling rodents, strung by the tails to a rack which he carried over his shoulders, is a standard illustration of the common school atlases of 10 years ago. A large portion of the community believe implicitly that Chinamen love rats as Western people love poultry.

—New York Times,
August 1, 1883
"Mott Street Chinamen Angry.
They Deny They Eat Rats."


March 30, 2005

It's the same televised routine twice a week, Wednesdays and Saturdays, at 10:59 P.M. central time. And on March 30, 2005, everything was as always. The host introduced the drawing. The white balls, air-popped, rolled out one by one from the machine: 28, 39, 22, 32, 33. The final ball, red, from another machine, plopped down and slowly spun to a stop: 42. The six balls took fifty-six seconds to appear, fifty-six seconds that sent shocks through the lottery system across the country.

After the drawing, with the cameras turned off, Sue Dooley, a former preschool teacher, helped maneuver the two machines back into the vault. Sue was one of the two Powerball staff members who took turns overseeing the drawings. One of the frontline soldiers of the Powerball security, she'd been hired, in part, because working with children had made her good at bossing people around. She was the one who'd dropped the balls into the wispy churn of the machines that night, climbing up onto a milk crate because, at five foot two, she needed help to reach that high.

Lotteries live and die by their integrity. Fraud and scandal have led to crackdowns on American lotteries in two waves of moralistic prohibition—once before the Civil War and again before the turn of the twentieth century. In an infamous case, in 1823 Congress created a lottery to raise money to beautify Washington; the organizers ran away with the money. By the late nineteenth century, Congress had passed a restriction on transporting lottery tickets across state lines, which to this day hinders the creation of a national lottery.

But in the late 1980s, increasingly dependent on lotteries to avoid raising taxes, states figured out a way around the national ban. They found they could legally form coalitions of state lotteries to form megalotteries, whose larger jackpots would attract greater ticket sales, as long as the states sold only state-branded tickets within their borders. Lotteries were akin to insurance companies—taking in lots of little flows of money that would statistically cover big payouts at some profit to the institution. Megalotteries are somewhat analogous to reinsurance firms, in that the states can spread the risk of large payouts among one another. The megalotteries proved to be so popular, raising billions of dollars for education and infrastructure, that by 2005 only a handful of states abstained from either Powerball or its chief rival, Mega Millions.

With billions of dollars depending on the security of Powerball, there were numerous precautionary measures in place. At every drawing officials waited until the last minute before they decided which two of the four Powerball machines they would use. Copies of the ticket sales data were kept in multiple locations. The vault housing the machines was padlocked twice and secured with numbered plastic seals that could be used only once. Two keys were needed to open the vault, kept separately by the Powerball staff and by an auditor.

Satisfied that everything was secure, Sue put the vault key into her purse and drove the five-mile stretch of empty Des Moines highway from the studio to wait for the results. The Powerball headquarters had been located in the Des Moines area in part because it was neither the East nor the West Coast. "No one cares if it's located in Iowa. No one's feelings are hurt," one Powerball administrator explained. Iowa is as inoffensive as it is flat.

That night had been a low-key, uneventful drawing, and Sue figured she could be in bed by midnight. The jackpot was only $84 million. Once, that figure would have generated some excitement, but Powerball administrators had discovered the phenomenon of jackpot fatigue: players needed ever-larger jackpots to entice them into buying tickets in large numbers. The threshold for an attention-grabbing megajackpot had once been $10 million; it now stood at $100 million. The $84 million jackpot had generated only $11 million in ticket sales, on the modest end of a normal lottery. Based on the ticket sales, officials expected to get three or four second-place winners—people who'd picked the first five of the six numbers correctly—and perhaps one jackpot winner.

Around 11:15 P.M., Sue pulled up to the Powerball headquarters, which was tucked into an anonymous office complex in a stretch of grass off Interstate 35. It was hard to believe that the low-slung bland strip mall contained a twelve-person office that oversaw some $3 billion a year in annual sales—enough that if those sales belonged to a publicly traded company, it would be in the Fortune 1000. The staff had kept the office purposely nondescript, with none of the glitzy logos and neon lights that often marked state lottery headquarters. In fact, the office had originally lacked any sign whatsoever indicating that it served as Powerball headquarters, but when senior citizens in search of nearby medical suppliers had kept coming in to ask for respirators and medications, the staff had stuck four small letters on the front door: MUSL, the contrived abbreviation for "multistate lottery."

Sue turned on her computer and waited for the results to come in from the various states. Before the prizes could be doled out the next morning, all the numbers had to be checked and rechecked.

This can't be right, she thought as she saw the first tallies trickle in. Statistically they had expected only 3.7 second-place winners, but the states were reporting huge numbers, so large that no one had ever seen anything like this in the history of American lotteries.

Arizona: 11

Pennsylvania: 13

South Carolina: 14

Tennessee: 12

Indiana: 10

Against the odds, states that normally had almost no second-place winners were coming in with more than had been predicted for the entire drawing.

Rhode Island: 5

Minnesota: 4

Connecticut: 4

Even Montana, with its sparse population of 900,000, had a winner. Across all the states there were 110 winners. Sue checked to see if they were concentrated in any way, but the tickets had been sold by different vendors from different computer systems across different states. None of the tickets had been computer-generated, meaning the players had independently chosen the numbers themselves.

What was going on? She grabbed the phone.

Chuck Strutt, the Powerball director, was a mild-mannered man who wrote poetry in his spare time. But sometimes he lost momentum. His last book of published poetry had included a number of blank pages, in jest.

Chuck was sitting at home when his phone rang; when he heard what was happening he felt a shiver. Occasionally, Powerball would get four or five times the number of expected second-place winners, and once they'd even had seven times the predicted figure. But their accountants and statisticians had calculated the odds and found that these occurrences were flukes of chance; distributions could sometimes put you in those ranges. Nearly thirty times the number of expected winners, however, was well outside any statistical probability.

Not only that, but 104 of the 110 winners had picked the same sixth number, 40, instead of the Powerball number of 42. It would have been better had the winners all matched the final Powerball number of 42. In that case, under the lottery's fine-print rules, the jackpot would simply have been split among the 110 people. But Powerball's second prize and under were all fixed amounts, meaning their liability was theoretically unlimited: the more winners, the more Powerball had to pay out. Foreseeing this, Powerball had legally protected itself in scenarios that could generate an outlandish number of winners. For example, the most popular sequence played in Powerball was 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, followed by 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30. If the winning numbers resembled either of those, there would be thousands upon thousands of lower-place winners, as had happened in the Massachusetts Lottery once when the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and 10 were drawn. There would also have been thousands of winners if 9, 1, 1 had come up in any of the pick-3 lotteries in the days after September 11. So on the back of each Powerball ticket, written in small print, are the words "In unusual circumstances, the set prize amount may be paid on a pari-mutuel basis, which will be lower than the published prize amounts." Powerball also kept a reserve fund of $25 million, of which $20 million would be drained by the unexpectedly high number of $100,000 and $500,000 winners in that night's drawing.

Chuck and Sue brainstormed about possible causes. An episode of Lost, the hit ABC television show, had featured a lottery number that had simultaneously brought jackpots and misfortune to its winners. Sue, a lifelong fan of The Young and the Restless, recalled that a recent plotline had involved a $1 million Powerball ticket dispute between Kevin and Michael. Perhaps one of the widely syndicated lottery columnists had suggested those numbers.

That night, Chuck barely slept. What if this is fraud? he wondered. Had someone managed to game the system?

Some seven hundred miles away, in Nashville, the next morning, Rebecca Paul came to work puzzled by the unusual spike in Powerball winners. Rebecca had run four state lotteries, including her current position as the head of Tennessee's. She was intrigued by the number of winners in Tennessee alone: not only did they have the jackpot winner, they also had twelve second-place winners.

With more than twenty years of experience under her belt, Rebecca was one of the most respected veterans and one of the first women in the insular, tight-knit community of state lottery officials. Her office wall featured a collection of different magazine issues through the years—all with her photo on the cover.

She had started down the path of state lotteries as a beauty pageant queen when, as Miss Indiana, she had placed in the top five in the Miss America pageant with a gymnastics tumbling routine. That honor had led to a job as a part-time weather girl on a local television station, which she later parlayed into a position in sales and marketing. In 1985, she got a call from the Illinois governor, James Thompson, who asked her to start the state lottery. She had no experience with lotteries, she said; he told her he wanted her anyway. She knew how to sell things, and lotteries were in essence about marketing—selling people their dreams. Even as a lottery official, she retained one prominent vestige of her beauty pageant days: her hair, which could be best described by the word "bouffant."

Rebecca sat down at her desk with a Powerball form and colored in the winning numbers with a purple felt-tip pen to see if any patterns emerged—a cross or a diagonal or a diamond—but none did. She contacted the head of security of the Tennessee Lottery with instructions to start looking for any evidence of fraud.

But at 8:30 A.M., Tennessee already had a winner waiting for the prize office to open its doors, a great-grandfather named James Currie who worked the night shift as a system operator at Pinnacle Foods, the parent company of the Duncan Hines and Aunt Jemima brands. He had made the two-hour drive from Jackson, Tennessee, with his sister, Sherion; he dreamed of buying a Cadillac with his money.

The staff, as was customary, asked how he had selected his winning numbers.

"From a fortune cookie," he replied. He had always used birthday and anniversary dates, but he'd realized that they weren't getting him anywhere. So a few months earlier he'd switched to a fortune cookie number he had obtained from a Chinese takeout restaurant near his home called Dragon 2000. He'd had a good feeling about those numbers and had been playing them for three months.

In Idaho at 11:18 A.M. another winner reported using a fortune cookie number. Same with Minnesota at 12:06 P.M. and Wisconsin at 12:09 P.M. One winner had even kept the original fortune: "All the preparation you've done will finally be paying off." On the bottom were the numbers that so many Americans had taken an inexplicable faith in: 22, 28, 32, 33, 39, 40.

The ritual of Chinese food in America had sent the twenty-nine-state Powerball on a collision course with fortune cookies. The fortune cookies had prevailed.


American-Born Chinese

There are some forty thousand Chinese restaurants in the United States—more than the number of McDonald's, Burger Kings, and KFCs combined.

Tucked into exurban strip malls, urban ghettos, and tiny midwestern towns that are afterthoughts for cartographers, Chinese restaurants have spread nearly everywhere across America—from Abbeville, Louisiana, to Zion, Illinois, to Navajo reservations, where, in a distinction shared with only a handful of businesses, they're exempted from tribe-member ownership. Old restaurants, clothing stores on Main Streets, and empty storefronts have been reborn as Chinese restaurants. The Washington, D.C., boardinghouse where John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices planned Abraham Lincoln's assassination is now a Chinese restaurant called Wok n Roll.

Chinese restaurants have long been a weekly or monthly ritual for many Americans.

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."

I was not an American to them. I was an American-born Chinese. Maybe the same thing was true of Chinese food back home: It's Chinese. It just happened to be born in America.

Or maybe the truth was closer to this: It's American. It just looks Chinese.


On Sale
Mar 3, 2008
Page Count
320 pages

Jennifer B. Lee

About the Author

Jennifer 8 Lee, the daughter of Chinese immigrants and a fluent speaker of Mandarin Chinese herself, grew up eating her mother’s authentic Chinese food in her family’s New York City kitchen before graduating from Harvard in 1999 with a degree in Applied Mathematics and economics and studying at Beijing University. At the age of 24, she was hired by the New York Times, where she is a metro repoter and has written a variety of stories on culture, poverty, and technology.

Learn more about this author