Thursday, November 29, 2007

What would you serve to Queen Elizabeth?

Queen Elizabeth the First made a habit of dropping in for dinner. After she and her many courtiers finished eating, they would stay around for days or weeks. If you had a nice manor house or estate, you would be both honored and burdened to host your monarch at banquet after banquet. During her 45 year reign -- from 1558, when she was 25 years old, until 1603, when she died at the then-remarkable age of 70 -- Elizabeth did this all the time.

An Elizabethan manor house was a busy and heavily populated place. Workers of many social levels were attached to the noble family. The manor’s fields and gardens produced much of the food that would be used in case Elizabeth’s Royal Progress came their way. Gardeners, field hands, kitchen servants, and other workers raised pigs, fattened goslings, cultivated vegetables, grew and preserved fruit and grain, brewed ale and beer, and stored food from season to season. Stills in the kitchen produced flavored waters like lavender water or rose water and sometimes distilled spirits. The manor kitchens fed large numbers of people, but the Queen’s arrival definitely swamped them!

When the manor ran low on a particular food -- or to obtain something exotic or hard to produce -- they sent purchasers to fairs such as the great fair at Stourbridge near Cambridge, or to London, or to a port, where imports were available on the docks. They bought claret, white wine, and sack by the keg. They bought many sorts of fresh water fish and salt water fish, sometimes still alive in barrels. For celebrations, fatted calves were available from dairy farmers, for whom the calves were a by-product. Oranges, prunes, figs, almonds, and other warmer-weather fruits appeared in records of household purchasing. Menus list venison pasties, roast swans and larks, and elaborate meat and vegetable stews.

English gardeners were beginning to cultivate many new vegetables such as the potato, brought from the New World by Sir Walter Raleigh. Another New-World import was the turkey. Nobles – and eventually more ordinary folks -- were beginning to eat many types of lettuce, olive oil for their salads, several types of cucumbers, and many other new foods from all over Europe as well. Manor houses hired foreign gardeners to cultivate new trendy plants such as globe artichokes, eggplant, and pumpkins. They arranged to plant finicky trees, such as apricots and peaches, in the hopes of impressing Elizabeth when she arrived. They made special arrangements such as heated walls that helped the sensitive fruit to ripen.

In planting their gardens and choosing their produce, the nobles were very aware of what was in and what was out. At first introduction, Jerusalem artichokes were “dainties for a queen.” But they turned out to grow like weeds, and the attitude toward them changed from enthusiasm to indifference when just anyone could eat them. All kinds of distinctions were made. Which was better – Dutch or French cheese? Which was better – an English or a French turnip? Which of the numerous varieties of local or imported apples were best?

Queen Elizabeth was renowned for her love of sweets. Her closed smile in some portraits creates speculation that her teeth were all rotten from eating sugar. Throughout her reign, sugar imports grew continually. Recipe books describe fruit preserves made with a pound of sugar to a pound of fruit – the same as a modern jam recipe. Sweet! Her hosts would surely have provided fruit pies, cakes, cheese tarts, and other treats. The Queen deserved the whitest bread, the sweetest and rarest fruit, and the most lavish selection of meat, poultry, fish, and elaborate pastry.

Here’s how one recipe from Elizabethan times says to bake a cake. First, you bake the flour in the oven (evidently to get rid of weevils). Sift it. Mix butter, sugar, cream, and egg yolks with the flour. Flavor with cloves, mace, and saffron. Bake it.

Elizabethans worried about both health and taste. They thought of herbs as health-giving. For instance, sage eaten with butter for breakfast gave people strength, good health, and wisdom. (It’s called sage, isn’t it?) Imported spices – mace, cinnamon, ginger, coriander, and so on – made the food taste good. Despite the modern myth that people used to employ spices to cover rotting flavors, the Elizabethans were fastidious about their food’s tastes. Whatever they served their Queen was surely very high quality.

In the Queen’s own household, spices and exotic fruits were an important purchase – showing how valued they were. Her Office of the Spicery in 1582 wrote a document expressing alarm at the varying prices for currants, raisins, prunes, mace, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmegs. Her accountant mentioned increases in prices for sugar, cloves, and nutmegs, but decreases in other prices. No wonder she liked to go and eat at someone else’s table.

Famines occurred in several years of Elizabeth’s reign: 1585, 1586, 1594, 1595, 1596, 1597. Starvation among the poor was an issue in these years. City people planted root crops in dung heaps, and writers advised the poor to eat beans, vetch, bran and other famine foods. The rich, however, could continue in their lavish food ways, feeding the Queen when she arrived at their manor homes.

Note: This exercise is based on a new book – just published 2007: Food in Early Modern England: Phases, Fads, Fashions 1500-1760 by Joan Thirsk. All information is from that book.

For my other exercises in food history see blog posts: Mona Lisa: By Request: What did Mona Lisa Eat?; What did Columbus Discover?; and What if global warming makes our crops fail?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Falafel Fluffle

I really like falafel, especially those Israeli falafel sandwiches with a pita stuffed with hot little deep-fried balls of chick peas, salad, tahini sauce and sometimes even french fries. My favorite falafel source used to be a little food stall on Rue des Rosiers, the old Jewish street in Paris. I've eaten it in the Arab neighborhood of Dearborn, Michigan, at Ann Arbor's Jerusalem Garden Restaurant ... all over.

Falafel, I understand, is popular throughout the Middle East as well as with Israelis. In Israel it's sometimes called Yemenite falafel. The Israeli version is supposedly of Egyptian origin. Yemenite Jewish food-stand owners created their own version, though it wasn't part of their cuisine before they left Yemen. I imagine every national version has its own story.

A few weeks ago, when many sources cited an article called "FBI Hoped to Follow Falafel Trail to Iranian Terrorists Here" by Jeff Stein, I was amused. Here's an excerpt from the story:
"Like Hansel and Gretel hoping to follow their bread crumbs out of the forest, the FBI sifted through customer data collected by San Francisco-area grocery stores in 2005 and 2006, hoping that sales records of Middle Eastern food would lead to Iranian terrorists.

"The idea was that a spike in, say, falafel sales, combined with other data, would lead to Iranian secret agents in the south San Francisco-San Jose area.

"The brainchild of top FBI counterterrorism officials Phil Mudd and Willie T. Hulon, according to well-informed sources, the project didn’t last long. It was torpedoed by the head of the FBI’s criminal investigations division, Michael A. Mason, who argued that putting somebody on a terrorist list for what they ate was ridiculous — and possibly illegal.

"A check of federal court records in California did not reveal any prosecutions developed from falafel trails." [Note: when you read on, you'll understand why the link might eventually not point to the same story!]
Yesterday, the FBI made a statement on the matter of Falafel Terrorism, signed by John Miller, Assistant Director, Office of Public Affairs:
"We at the FBI were surprised to read about a supposed FBI program to monitor the sales of Middle Eastern food products in the San Francisco Bay area in support of counterterrorism intelligence gathering (“FBI Hoped to Follow Falafel Trail to Iranian Terrorists Here,” November 2, 2007).

"Having never heard of this, I spoke to the counterterrorism managers, who in the story were identified as having hatched the plan, as well as everyone else who would have had any knowledge of it. Nobody did. ...

"While the story may have been the source of some amusement, I appreciate the opportunity to set the record straight on something that touches on something so important as national security and civil liberties."
Yes, as I said, I was amused at the idea of who would be entrapped by a net around falafel eaters -- including me. But not particularly including Iranians -- Persian cuisine is a fine and wonderful one, but not part of the Middle Eastern tradition that includes falafel. I expect that the vast number of bloggers and others who have responded to the first article covered this in great detail.

At any rate, I would have thought a journal called "Congressional Quarterly" had better standards. The FBI press release lists the CQ article as "too ridiculous to be true." I'm eagerly awaiting further crossfire between the parties to the claim. (I learned about the FBI press release in Quote: Dept. of Too Juicy to Be True from the New York Times blog The Lede.)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A weekend of food

On our visit to the Indianapolis Museum of Art on Saturday, we enjoyed this painting of hors d'oeuvres by Gustave Caillibaut. But of course you want to hear about our Thanksgiving dinner:

Elaine cooked a fabulous meal entirely according to tradition. Maybe we were obligated to make up for Evelyn's decision to have fondue and trifle for her Thanksgiving dinner!

While Larry carved, Lenny made a fabulous glossy dark sauce for the turkey and stuffing, which Elaine had started the day before, and which she and I worked on for quite a bit of the day.

Elaine is really good at planning, and I joined in with the scheme. She had made one pot of stock from the neck and giblets on Wednesday. We used this for the stuffing. She'd also left the bread out to dry some overnight, and we seasoned it from her brand-new jar of poultry seasoning.

While we were cutting up celery, onions, and carrots, we also put aside a baggie full of chopped veggies for later making stock. As Larry carved, he put the bones right into a big pot. It cooked overnight. Saturday we used the fantastic stock for French onion soup for lunch. I realized that French onion soup is almost a Thanksgiving tradition -- for later in the weekend. It's the moment when we have great stock every year.

For Thanksgiving dessert, we had two pies and a chocolate cranberry cake. By that time, I was only able to eat one small piece of apple pie. Elaine makes the best apple pies I know of.

I think everyone had a fantastic time at Thanksgiving dinner. We had plenty of pie and apple salad left over for breakfast on Friday, too, before heading for Indianapolis (around an hour's drive through Hoosier fields past industrial areas, and into the city).

At the Museum Friday, we ate an entirely unmemorable cafe lunch, and of course had a full plate of leftovers for dinner Friday night, all very traditionally oriented, of course.

By Saturday night -- after the French onion soup lunch -- we were ready for a restaurant. Is a Chinese dinner part of Thanksgiving tradition? I don't know. We ordered shrimp with walnuts, moo-shu pork, fish with black beans, and a dish of green beans (despite the green beans we had eaten for Thanksgiving).

Food has obviously been very important to the Chinese for a very long time. In the Han Dynasty, more than a thousand years ago, the dead were sent off with a vast number of preparatory statues to accompany and serve them: including food. This selection, which we saw in the museum, includes a number of items, including a boar's head. An oven for cooking it is off to the side.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The First Locavore

I mentioned earlier that the word locavore was the Oxford University Press word of the year. Jessica Prentice, who coined the word, has written a guest blog with a wonderful description of how she became a locavore [avant la lettre] and then how she invented a word for it.

Read this:

The Birth of Locavore

Food Banks and Food Drives

This morning I contributed some canned goods to a drive at the center where I take my aerobics class. On Thanksgiving morning the instructors traditionally do a workout session where the price of admission is a donation of food. (At times in the past, people used the cans as weights in the workout, but they don't do this any more.)

Again this year I'll be out of town -- in fact, I've never been in town for the Thanksgiving workout. But I brought my Campell's Tomato Soup and a couple of others. And I think of all the school plays where children dressed as Pilgrims bringing in "a canned good." And students at the door to collect food for the needy. Our local food banks this year have announced greater need than they've ever seen, thanks to many unfavorable economic trends. Food Gatherers, the main Ann Arbor food bank, ran out of food for the first time this summer, according to their Christmas appeal.

Last year, a physician acquaintance told me that we should bring canned vegetables to offset the more commonly contributed items like my soup or the often-contributed spaghetti. I didn't get to an appropriate store this time, so I had to bring what I had on hand already -- but I've tried to learn from her.

I believe that most recipients are truly needy, and that anyone lucky enough to have adequate food can help them. Contributions of money are also part of the commitment that I make and that I think other fortunate people should consider. We need to count our blessings: and share them. I think I'm in the mainstream on these feelings towards food banks, soup kitchens, and distributors of food packages.

Earlier this week, the Washington Post ran an article by Mark Winne, who is the former director of Connecticut's Hartford Food System. Winne explained why he thought this was not the right approach. He wrote that food banks and food drives cause us to "continue down a road that never comes to an end. Like transportation planners who add more lanes to already clogged highways, we add more space to our food banks in the futile hope of relieving the congestion." Instead, he says: "We know hunger's cause -- poverty. We know its solution -- end poverty. Let this Thanksgiving remind us of that task."

Well, he makes it sound simple. I wonder -- Winne has a book coming out early in January: Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty. I'll try to read it to find out how he thinks the solution to this problem should be approached.

I assume that in the current conditions -- that the poor are hungry, and we can help by giving them food -- he doesn't just think we should ignore the problem the way that Herbert Hoover did, for ideological reasons, at the beginning of the Great Depression. The question of where to start and what to do about poverty seems really daunting to me. I find it hard to criticize the direct help that's been the approach for thousands of years. I don't think that the article is convincing in its claim that people will not fight poverty if they are giving food to food banks. I think it might make them more apt to favor solutions to poverty.

See When Handouts Keep Coming, the Food Line Never Ends by Mark Winne, November 18, 2007.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Food they Never Tasted

In Hungering for America, Hasia Diner tells of the starving Irish, who never tasted the delicacies that their native land produced. While the English ate Irish bacon, the Irish had rotting potatoes. Diner describes the effect of this on the Irish immigrants once they got to America. Irish women who became cooks in America were expected to cook according to food traditions to which they had no personal commitment. I summarized this in my post yesterday.

Today, I suddenly had a moment of connection with this as I read a newly-posted essay by Barbara Ehrenreich, about excesses in New York foodie places. The restaurant Serendipity3, Ehrenreich points out, recently created a $25,ooo dessert, "Frrrozen Haute Chocolate," containing edible gold, truffles, and ultra-premium chocolate. (Ehrenreich is more restrained, but I googled until I found the picture at right showing what a $25K dessert looks like.)

A week after setting a Guiness record for costliest dessert, Serendipity3 received a visit from health department inspectors who found: "a live mouse, mouse droppings in multiple areas of the restaurant, fruit flies, house flies, and more than 100 live cockroaches."

Ehrenreich's article juxtaposed these facts to highlight more general issues. She writes of "the inevitability of cockroaches in a world divided between rich and poor and served by a public sector in a state of bad decay." She discusses workers and kitchen conditions in New York's fanciest food establishments. She mentions how Whole Foods and Balduccis offer a buffet of stunning-looking food, but it doesn't taste all that good. Here is her conclusion -- look at the parallels with the starving Irish!
But there could be something else behind the consistently bad prepared food at these upscale sources: Many, if not all, of the people doing the cooking behind the scenes are making foods they are unlikely ever to confront in real life. Ask a Salvadoran immigrant to whip up chicken masala and he or she will no doubt follow directions, but in complete ignorance of the desired taste. One of the women working at the Balduccis I have patronized has only one visible tooth in her mouth, which in addition to speaking ill of the store's dental benefits, means she can never have bitten into one of the lamb burgers she sells. [From Roaches in the World's Most Expensive Dessert posted November 19, 2007.]
See this for a full description of the dessert: $25,000 for a Hot Chocolate?
See this for a full description of the mouse droppings: If You Give a Mouse a $25,000 Frrrozen Haute Chocolate…

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Two Books: "Paradox of Plenty" and "Hungering for America"

I recently read two books on the history of food in America.

Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America (revised edition, 2003) by Harvey Levenstein is very often quoted. It's encyclopedic. Decade by decade, it discusses food trends, the food industry, the politics of food, the growth of fast food, and fads in fine dining. Beginning with the era of the great depression, it catalogs both food and hunger -- though he finds more paradoxes than just simultaneous gorging and starvation.

Leverstein's sources include newspaper clippings, food industry publications, restaurant reviews, reflection of food and body image in TV and film, and many other popular cultural sources. The overwhelming detail in each chapter makes this more of a source book for study of something more specific. The notes are very detailed, so you could probably go to his sources to learn more. However, the net result is not a good read. It just doesn't focus enough.

Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration by Hasia R. Diner (2001) approaches food history in a different way. I especially appreciate the author's use of fiction and personal memoirs as a source of information. (I mentioned this in an earlier blog post.) For each of the three groups -- Italians, Irish, and mainly Eastern European Jews -- Diner presents the foodways of their place of origin. She discusses the meals that were served at Ellis Island. For each group, she illustrates how adjustment to America affected foods that the group eventually "owned" in America.

In her discussion of how "Italian" food in America was different from the many regional cuisines of Italy I found quite a few interesting facts, though some points weren't so surprising. Even as a teenager, eating pizza for the first time at a restaurant called Rinaldi's, I was told that it was really an adaptation to American taste. My more sophisticated friends said that if I ever went to Italy, no pizza would be on the menu.

My friends, in fact, were wrong. By the time I went to Italy, American-style pizza had been adopted by the Italians. Pizza in Italy wasn't an obscure street food any more -- though it was still different from Rinaldi's pizza. Similarly, spaghetti with tomato sauce and meat balls, certain kinds of sausage, and a few cheeses were much more prominent in American than in regional Italian cooking, said Diner. She clarifies the process by which the food became defined as "Italian."

As for the Irish, Diner makes the case that she scoured every possible source, and found that the Irish immigrants had no particular empathy for the cooking of their former land. The unbelievably harsh policy of the English colonial masters had left them in such terrible food need that when the potato crop failed, they starved while Ireland was still exporting bacon, vegetables and many other foods that they had never in fact tasted. The bitterness over this experience possibly left them indifferent to food until later in their American experience. Beer and whiskey, yes, Irish bars and saloons, yes, but corned beef and cabbage didn't became Irish until almost 100 years after the main immigration.

Another interesting comparison of the groups in Diner's book shows how immigration patterns affected foodways. Many more Italian men than women immigrated to the US. Many more Irish women than men immigrated . Among the Jews, the pattern was for whole families to immigrate together. Diner's discussion is very specific about the results of this difference.

Irish women, she showed, worked as domestic servants. Stereotyping and negative attitudes of popular writers characterized the Irish cook as "Biddy." They deprecated her skills and her attitude. This was another factor that deterred the development of an Irish-American cuisine -- the first contact with food here was for so many learning to cook other people's food. Italian laboring men, in contrast, often lived together and cooked together. Also, eventually, Italian restaurants adapted their foods to broader American tastes.

Diner's treatment of the attitudes towards food in the shtetls of Eastern Europe was particularly interesting. Even the poorest Jews, she felt, were enabled to have an attitude of deserving to eat well. She discusses "eating days" where Jewish students would be fed by volunteer families one day each week, because they felt an obligation to learning. I don't have time to summarize this very interesting piece of scholarship.

I enjoyed reading both books. I've hardly done them justice in this short summary.

Friday, November 16, 2007

News of the Fat, or There Will Always be an England

The New Yorker rubric "There will always be an England" really fits this BBC article: "Huge hedgehog goes on Atkins diet." The larger picture shows George the Hedgehog, brought to the Wildlife Aid Centre in Leatherhead, England. The smaller picture shows an ordinary hedgehog.

George weighs almost 5 pounds, several times the weight of a normal hedgehog. The article doesn't mention if there's a Body Mass Index recommended for hedgehogs, but explains that George had been gorging on easily-available greens and on bread that was meant for the birds.

George's nurse at the Centre explained his new catfood diet:
"We've got to reduce his weight and we've got to do it slowly. Cat food is high in protein and we're stopping him eating bread. So it's a bit like the Atkins diet."

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

My Two Blog-Reading Interests Overlap

Besides being interested in food, I love reading blogs about language. There's an overlap this week: a foodie word became Oxford University Press word of the year. Quote from the announcement on the OUP website:
The 2007 Word of the Year is (drum-roll please) locavore. ...

The “locavore” movement encourages consumers to buy from farmers’ markets or even to grow or pick their own food, arguing that fresh, local products are more nutritious and taste better. Locavores also shun supermarket offerings as an environmentally friendly measure, since shipping food over long distances often requires more fuel for transportation....

“Locavore” was coined two years ago by a group of four women in San Francisco who proposed that local residents should try to eat only food grown or produced within a 100-mile radius.

Over at (the writers always refer to their blog this way), Benjamin Zimmer of OUP has also been reporting on research about the reason why the four women chose the spelling "locavore" rather than "localvore." From Zimmer's Languagelog post:

I wondered why the original "locavores" ... chose that particular spelling instead of localvore with an extra l, favored by some other groups. I wrote: "Unlike other word formations lost in the mists of time, this is a case where the origin can be firmly pinpointed, so perhaps the true story of loca(l)vore will be revealed in more detail by the coiners themselves." Well, sure enough, the coiner of locavore, Jessica Prentice, emailed to explain how she came up with the word.

Jessica writes:

I thought about both "localvore" and "locavore" and decided on the latter. First of all, it's easier to say, has a better flow, and almost sounds like a "real" word. But also my understanding is that the prefix "loc(a)" has to do with place — as in "location", "locomotive" and "locus"... The ending "vore" has to do with eating, and is the same root as the word "devour". To me the word "locavore" means, in a sense, "a person who eats the place" or even "one who eats with a sense of place" or, better yet, "one who devours the place" (I enjoy eating). To have used "localvore" would have limited the possible resonances and shades of meaning of the word — in my opinion. [FROM "Locavore vs. localvore: the coiner speaks"]
To summarize my favorite language blogs:
  • Languagelog -- This is a fascinating blog by several famous linguists.
  • Linguist and editor Benjamin Zimmer's Oxford University Press Blog -- OUP are the Oxford English Dictionary folks.
  • You Don't Say -- John McIntyre, The Baltimore Sun's assistant managing editor for the copy desk, looks at issues of language and writing.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Silver Diner, Fairfax, VA

The diner has every feature that any diner anywhere ever had. A juke box. Art Deco signs. Meatloaf dinners. Eggs lots of ways. Plus lots of new kinds of foods -- thai chicken salad, bagels, quesadillas -- which were never on a diner in the fifties. But good. Miriam and Alice had authentic diner food: a P.B.&J. and toasted cheese.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Oh, Rats

We finally saw Ratatouille in the last-run $1 movie theater on Friday. And yesterday it arrived from Netflix. I'll watch it again. It inspired me to cook -- as it inspired Evelyn some time ago. Here are before and after baking photos followed by Evelyn's first-run-inspired dish.

Monday, November 05, 2007

More on "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles"

Continued review of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8. Lee. Chapter 7: "Why Chow Mein Is the Chosen Food of the Chosen People; or, The Kosher Duck Scandal of 1989."

Before I sat down to formulate my thoughts on connections between Jews and Chinese food, I searched my pantry for Kosher Chinese products. Out of several jars and bottles, two displayed the Kosher certification mark (the OU and the OK symbols at lower right in both pictures). My chili garlic paste, hoisin sauce, and rice vinegar had no such marks. Nor did Japanese ponzu or Thai fish sauce, but they're not Chinese anyway.

I guess this is evidence for the obvious: Jewish cooks make Chinese food. As Lee points out, there are lots of non-obvious things about the love of Jews for Chinese restaurants. Early in the 20th century, she points out, Jews and Chinese as immigrant groups lived in neighboring New York areas. Both were non-Christians in a Christian land, and they shared their non-observance of major holidays. This leads to one traditional Jewish Christmas dinner -- having Chinese take-out or dining in Chinese restaurants. Why? All the other restaurants are closed.

Further, Lee claims that as a dairy-less cuisine, Chinese cooking is easier to make simultaneously authentic and kosher. My adventure in the pantry makes me doubt this: the lack of kosher condiments would be as challenging as separating milk and meat. Vegetarian/dairy pizza and pasta are also kosher favorites. Not to mention the ubiquity of shellfish and pork in Chinese food -- though the old joke has it that anything is kosher in a Chinese restaurant. I'd look further for an explanation.

Lee traces references to Jewish-Chinese dining to 1928, citing a secondary reference to an article in Der Tog, a Yiddish newspaper. I think this was probably the article "The War between Chop Suey and Gefilte Fish," cited by Hasia R. Diner in the book Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration. Diner's study has an even earlier reference to Jewish-Chinese food links. She writes that the Jewish pattern of "going out to Chinese restaurants emerged quite early. In the 1890s the American Hebrew, a magazine oriented to the English-reading middle-class traditional Jews reported on the trend and criticized it." (p. 2o5)

The Kosher Duck Scandal of the chapter's title gets a lot of attention. For me, it's the least interesting part of the whole book, as it's really more about competition between Jewish groups and interests that aren't part of my life. In keeping with Lee's wide-ranging interests, though, she does document the role of Jewish entrepreneurs in such areas as producing the small packets of soy sauce that come with Chinese takeout and even in occasional ownership of Chinese restaurants. I think there's a lot of material on Jews and Chinese food that could be explored. I hope Lee will get to it in some future book, but skip the minutia of kashrut and its politics.

The bond between Jews and Chinese is deeper than food, I think. In the chapter titled "American Stir-fry" Lee discusses the question of Chinese identity. She discusses the word hua, "the distilled essence of being Chinese." This concept ties together Chinese throughout the world, no matter what language or culture they have adopted or how little of the Chinese language they know: "as though one day we all might return, as though departure from the homeland is only temporary, even if it may last for generations upon generations." Sound familiar, anyone?

In the fiction of author Gish Jen, another second-generation Chinese-New Yorker, Jews and Chinese people have startlingly many things in common. Jen's book Mona in the Promised Land creates Mona, a wonderful Chinese-American teenager. The book is a very funny story of her life and effort to convert to Judaism. It's another way to look at this same interesting question. Like Hasia Diner, I think fiction is a wonderful source for understanding immigrant experiences, though not one that The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is based on.

Made in America

Thoughts on reading The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8. Lee.

How many ways of looking at a Fortune Cookie? Jennifer 8. Lee found more than thirteen. For starters, she looks at the famous incident where the "Lucky Numbers" repeated on fortune cookies distributed far and wide by Chinese restaurants randomly predicted a winning Powerball jackpot. Instead of a handful of winners, 110 people claimed at least $100,000. As a start into the world of Chinese restaurants, Lee traveled to the places where the winners live and eat Chinese food. Cool idea!

As she looked at the fortunes of fortune cookies, Lee offered all kinds of information about American Chinese restaurants. Using restaurant industry journals and interviewing suppliers, she explored the economics of these small businesses. Based on legal records and interviews, she illustrated immigration issues. The customer's side of the story came from some of the interviews with the Powerball winners, as well as from food-history writers. She even discussed the effort for international regulatory control of soy sauce!

A major appeal of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is learning about the perspective of the immigrants who own, run, and staff Chinese restaurants. Or one might say, slave in them. In "Waizhou, U.S.A." she tells the story of John and Jenny, immigrants who bought a Chinese restaurant in a tiny Georgia hamlet (pop. 850) and their painful experiences. What seemed normal treatment of their three children to Jenny and John, looked otherwise to well-meaning authorities. They temporarily took the children into foster care and even arrested the parents for a time. The story ends ambiguously: the family returns to New York and then disappears so that neither Lee (who had been periodically interviewing them) nor local Georgians (who had rescued them from their legal problems), could find them.

Most recent immigrants who have later owned and worked in Chinese restaurants throughout America start in New York -- including Jenny and John -- says Lee. Most come from one area of China. From the immigrant perspective, there's New York and everything else: the name for the rest is Waizhou. Not only did she visit many restaurants in the South and Midwest, Lee visited the villages and cities of China where restaurant workers primarily originate. She's especially effective at all this because of being bilingual. The much longer history of San Francisco Chinese restaurants receives less attention in the book, mostly in the search for the origin of fortune cookies.

Besides the cultural and economic aspects of Chinese restaurants, Lee discusses the ways that people look at food. Americans, says Lee, have a very different philosophy of eating. We learn how completely adapted Chinese restaurants are to American tastes. For starters, there's a detailed look at both chop suey (more than a century ago) and General Tso's chicken (recent): dishes that, like fortune cookies, are virtually unknown in China.

The differences in cultural food preferences that Lee explained were especially enlightening, I thought. In America, she says "what goes into the mouth should never come out. That is, there should be nothing where you have to chew on something and then spit out an inedible part. This means no chicken feet, no fish with bones, no shrimp with shells. Peanuts come shelled, and even watermelon is preferred seedless."

She contrasts this to Chinese native habits: "the aftermath of most restaurant meals is a pile of bones, shells, and other detritus on the table at every place setting." She explains the Chinese love of whole shrimp "with the eyes and tails still on," of chicken feet and legs with lots of bones, and their disfavoring of the American favorite, boneless chicken breasts -- tasteless and bland.

From my personal experiences with Chinese food (like my photo of the ducks in Toronto Chinatown), I had always thought that the difference was that Chinese food was always cut up bite sized, ready to put in your mouth with chop sticks. I also always thought of Chinese food as full of exotic vegetables, while Lee emphasizes the overuse of broccoli. When I've had duck, in fact, even that was served in little slices. American food differed -- I thought -- because it came in big slabs like steak, requiring a knife and fork. My understanding of the difference was that the Chinese didn't want to fool with food at the table. But I had it almost backwards!

Lee looks at American Chinese restaurants both individually and collectively. Although there is no central organization (such as the huge corporations maintaining the consistency of MacDonalds or Burger King) she says "at times it seems that America's Chinese restaurants operate as a single giant, pulsing entity, a lively example of one of the most fertile research areas for biologists, sociologists, and economists: spontaneously self-organizing networks. The principles that govern ant colonies, slime molds, and the growth of the Internet also extend to Chinese restaurants; from local actions emerge collective wisdom."

One more thought: it's interesting to read a proof copy -- reminds me of my days in various types of publication jobs. Many typos show that it still needs proofreading, which I'm sure it will get. The notes all refer to "page 00." This shows me that the publishers' text processing software doesn't automate cross-referencing -- odd, such software has existed almost as long as the author herself. An index (if one is to be) must be in progress. I hope they have good software for that!

My next post will cover what The ... Chronicles has to say about Jews and Chinese Restaurants!

Friday, November 02, 2007

"The Fortune Cookie Chronicles"

Here is the book I plan to read next: The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food by Jennifer 8. Lee. It arrived in the mail today.

I'm especially looking forward to Chapter 7: "Why Chow Mein is the Chosen Food of the Chosen People." I can't wait to see whether she agrees with my speculation about Jews and Chinese food.

At the lower edge of the cover in the image at right, you can see the words "ADVANCE READING COPY - NOT FOR SALE - TO BE PUBLISHED IN HARDCOVER - MARCH 2008"

How did I manage to get an advance copy? Well, for a while I've been reading Jennifer 8. Lee's blog. (Same name: The Fortune Cookie Chronicles). A couple of weeks ago, she invited her blogging blog readers to apply for a proof copy of the book and review it in their own blogs. I'm among the chosen!

I'm already convinced that I'm going to like this book, because I like her blog. Further, Jennifer 8. Lee's articles in the New York Times are often on topics I like and are written with an approach that I like. (Reporting for the New York Times is her day job. And if you wondered, the middle initial 8 connotes prosperity in Chinese, says the publisher's note at the front of the book.)

I'll be posting my reviews here as I read the book. It's edged out Krugman's Conscience of a Liberal which I was about to start reading.