Jennifer 8. Lee Attracts Americans with Chinese Food

  • October 13, 2008
  • Editor: zhuhong
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Jennifer 8. Lee. Photograph by Nina Subin

Chinese food has captured the stomachs of Americans. Jennifer 8. Lee's new book on Chinese food has also captured their hearts.

New York Times Reporter

Jennifer 8. Lee (born March 15, 1976, in New York City) is a New York Times reporter for the Metro section. She spells her middle name "8." (with both the digit and the punctuation) on paper, but on her New York driver's license, it is spelled as "Eight". "Yes, 8 is my middle name," said Lee in an interview with The Boston Globe on August 8, 1996.

Many Chinese and Japanese names contain numbers written in characters. Lee's parents, who are from Taiwan, added the number eight (the Chinese character) to Lee's name when she was a teenager (presumably with her consent). For many Chinese people, the number eight symbolizes prosperity and good luck.

Lee graduated from Hunter College High School and Harvard University (class of 1999). She interned at The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Newsday and The New York Times while working on her applied mathematics and economics degree. She joined the Times in 2001, one and a half years after graduating from Harvard.

A Book on Chinese Food

Lee is presently writing a book about Chinese food titled The Fortune Cookie Chronicles and is documenting the process on her blog fortunecookiechronicles.com. Warner Books editor Jonathan Karp struck a deal with Lee to write a book about "how Chinese food is more all-American than apple pie," according to Lee. The book will detail the history of Chinese food in the United States.

In the beginning of her book Jennifer writes about fortune cookies. Many people use the lucky numbers inside the cookies to buy lottery tickets and win a big prize. Is it pure coincidence? The answer lies in the fortune cookie.

Lee traveled around the US, to China, and to Europe to find the origin of the fortune cookie. She has been to tens, if not hundreds of, Chinese restaurants. She visits  chefs, merchants and restaurant owners. She has becomes good friends with local villagers all over the world.

General Tso's chicken is not very popular in China, but is a favorite Chinese dish in America. Jennifer reveals that the recipe that is commonly "known" as General Tso's chicken (crispy-fried, sweet and spicy) was introduced to New York City in the early 1970s as General Ching's chicken by a Chef Wang. (General Ching was General Tso's mentor.)

As General Tso marched across the US, it has morphed into different creations (red colored, radioactive orange, soupy sauce, dry sauce, baby corn, broccoli, carrots) with different names: General Gau. General Chau, General So, and General Tao. But they all share the same basic characteristics. Chicken. Fried. Sweet. All things Americans love.

When talking about Chinese food in the US, Lee has found some interesting stories. With her sensitivity and observation, Lee described how take-away food appeared. (A woman in Manhattan slid her menus under the doors of apartments when her restaurant was not very busy.) She writes about how Chinese employees are treated in the US. She writes with passion like a novelist. From her stories, readers will learn about which Chinese restaurants are authentic. Readers will also learn about historical figures that have spread Chinese food around the world.

Chinese immigrants rushed to the US during the 19th century. However, they were not welcome in the US. Because of discrimination, Chinese immigrants could not work in agriculture, mining or manufacturing, so they had to do washing and cooking. "Cooking and washing are women's work. Such occupations will not harm white people's job opportunities."

A bus line in New York takes new immigrants to look for jobs in restaurants around the nation. The "Chinese bus", traveling between Washington D.C. and New York, is very popular due to its low bus fare.

"Chinese food spread all over the world because it combines Chinese cooking skills with local flavors. Chinese food is not only a whole set of dishes, but also a philosophy to adapt to different circumstances," said a restaurant owner in rural New Orleans.

Chinese food is everywhere nowadays, even on Antarctica. All chefs improve on Chinese food to suit local tastes. Lee said that only New York, the Los Angeles area and San Francisco have authentic Chinese restaurants for Chinese people.

Besides the development of Chinese restaurants in the US., the book also tells fascinating stories. For example, there is a story about the mysterious disappearance of a Chinese deliveryman. Delivering food is a dangerous job in New York. A young deliveryman disappeared after a delivery. Luckily, he was not murdered, but trapped in the elevator for days. The young man who had ordered the take-away was the number one suspect in the case.

Lee visited an old Jewish-American woman in Kaifeng, China. She asked her why she liked Chinese food. Her answer was simple but profound: "It is delicious."

(Source: Xinhua/Translated by womenofchina.cn)


 

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