Szechuan Saturday, or: What I’m Reading but not Eating

A couple weeks ago Ms. S. and I stopped by our favorite local Mexican restaurant for a treat, and this led to a discussion or the origin of several supposedly ‘authentic’ ethnic dishes. And this led Ms. S. first to mentioning and then lending me her copy of Jennifer 8. Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles (Hachette, 2008).


The book’s hook, which leads Lee on a trip around the world and through history tracking down the origin of fortune cookies and exploring along the way Chinese food in America, is a lottery with an abnormally large number of winners, an event that can be traced back to a fortune cookie fortune and a series of lucky numbers.

The chapters tend to alternate between long and short, the latter little more than five to ten page anecdotes, while the former can provide long biographies and plots reminiscent of long-form journalism. Topic include not just the pedigree of fortune cookies (spread out over many chapters), but the origin of Chinese take out, a search for the greatest Chinese restaurant in the world, tales of human smuggling, the restaurant business, and more.

There’s a lot to recommend Lee’s book. There’s the frame tale, which is a quirky anecdote; two personal stories, that of Michael’s trafficking and the boat run ashore just off New York on the one hand of John and Jenny and their family on the other, are particularly poignant; the discussion of soy sauce reminds one of Michael Pollan; and across several chapters we get a historical interplay of Chinese and Japanese as well as Chinese and Jewish, the current multicultural nature of Chinese food in America and how it is both an integral part of American life and composed of those on the margins, and reflections Chinese food in the larger world.


As a whole I greatly enjoyed Lee’s book. It’s a quick read, a chapter-by-chapter type text that you can pick up and put down at your leisure. There is no actual ‘continuity’ between chapters, and with the exception of the ongoing mission to uncover the origin of fortune cookies — a narrative endeavor artificially elongated for the sake of the book as a whole — there is no particular order in which the chapters ‘must’ be read. In fact the book is less a monograph or memoir than a collection of essays, some long, some short. Some work better than others.

For me the weakest two falter for what they don’t do. The second is at the end, once the author has at last figured out the origin of fortune cookies but furthermore figured out what all those lottery winners had in common. That takes her to the company that printed the ‘lucky numbers’ and from there to the question of fortune cookies failing in China. Part of the answer provided is the eternally optimistic nature of the fortunes, and Lee engages in several paragraphs of superficially contrasting Chinese (or more generally ‘Asian’) and American approaches, views, etc. It’s a kind of flippant binary reductionism that I like to think was already out of style before Lee graduated from college and was, thus, woefully out of place in a 2008 book. Yet were this the starting point for further analysis or discussion it would be fruitful, not trite.

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is a page-turner of sorts; its prose is approachable and it is driven by questions, answers, and narratives. It is part memoir, part history, and part exposé. It’s a popular work in the best and worst senses; it eschews foot- or endnotes and offers few real suggestions for further reading, though it does offer a bibliography. This is rarely a weakness; it is a work of breadth rathe than depth, and by jaunting around the globe and exploring history Lee keeps the story going, accumulating substance but littering bread crumbs over so much surface. This works surprisingly well in most of the longer chapters, but when the narrative slows the illusion flickers, the mechanism sputters.

This is most true in chapter 17, “Open-Source Chinese Restaurants,” which is the penultimate chapter. It is brief and so cannot mask lack of depth with breadth, but it’s precisely the kind of material that invites further investigation. Lee offers the metaphor that corporately organized McDonald’s is Microsoft, then that the vast number of Chinese restaurants across the U.S., across the world, are Linux; it’s a closed source vs. open source model translated from software development to the culinary world. And as with her reductionist comparison a chapter later between Chinese and American approaches, it’s a starting point, not an argument itself.

In particular there are two significant flaws here. First is that it’s the most ‘dated’ chapter; whereas others involve history and dates, this is one that is centered around late-90s and early-00s software models not as history but as Zeitgeist, and while closed and open source models are still relevant, they are no longer topical. Lee also quotes Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia, but his monospaced instant messages offer no analysis and no insight; they at best repeat what Lee has already said.


Chapter 17 was a chapter with an invisible co-author: Friedrich Hayek.

Wales’ contribution has no content but it also makes perfect sense when we recall his libertarian political leanings. Lee refers to “self-organizing Chinese systems” on page 271, and it’s hard no to hear echoes of Hayek and “spontaneous order.”

It’s not that I suspect Lee of pushing a crypto-libertarian agenda here or elsewhere in the book; to the extent that it has an agenda, it is to be popular, and to that end be apolitical, even when the personal stories she relates and reports are entwined with grand political events. That Lee reports rather than judges is not a fault here.

But back to Hayek.

I was thinking of him earlier this week because of a post over at Language Log, where the matter was the tension between prescriptivism and descriptivism, as well as a general tendency to align these with right and left, respectively, but in bringing in Hayek seeing how sometimes the political polarity can be shifted. But that’s neither here nor there; what is is a quote appended to the second comment:

What led me to write another book on the same general theme as the earlier one was the recognition that the preservation of a society of free men depends on three fundamental insights which have never been adequately expounded and to which the three main parts of this book are devoted. The first of these is that a self-generating or spontaneous order and an organization are distinct, and that their distinctiveness is related to the two different kinds of rules or laws which prevail in them. The second is that what today is generally regarded as ‘social’ or distributive justice has meaning only within the second of these kinds of order, the organization; but that it is meaningless in, and wholly incompatible with, that spontaneous order which Adam Smith called ‘the Great Society’, and Sir Karl Popper called ‘the Open Society’. The third is that the predominant model of liberal democratic institutions, in which the same representative body lays down the rules of just conduct and direct government, necessarily leads to a gradual transformation of the spontaneous order of a free society into a totalitarian system conducted in the service of some coalition of organized interests.

—F. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty

Hayek’s intellectual mentors are, arguable, Kant (from his education), Wittgenstein (cousin and contemporary), and Popper (colleague and contemporary), but insofar as Hayek is indebted to Kant I suspect it is mostly Kant of the 1st Critique, the Kant most seen as a response to and even continuation of Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment. That is: we have a degree of epistemological skepticism and an amount of moral sense. We have a little Adam Smith and a good deal of Edmund Burke. What we don’t have is the Kant of the 3rd Critique, especially of the second half.

The Hayek quote above would usually be taken — especially insofar as it invokes Smith and Popper — as pro-“laissez faire” and anti-“planned economy,” which would be fair. This could be extended to being pro-“bottom up” and anti-“top down,” and in the sense of the 18th-century that would roughly but not precisely correspond to pro-empiricism and anti-rationalism.

But moving past the 18th century, where so many fans of ‘classical liberalism’ are stuck, as if in some sort of permanent infancy, we have several 19th-century obsessions that relate to Hayek’s text. There’s the community vs. civilization divide that’s a better fit to fascism vs. western democracy and not really appropriate here. But in terms of systems we would still take “organizations” as hierarchical, and it’s not about top-down so much as it is about verticality; “spontaneous systems” are envisioned as more “horizontal” (notice that we’ve done away with the “bottom-up” language).

Hayek along with Popper and, depending on context, Smith, to greater and lesser extents invoke the notion of being “left to one’s own devices,” that, as in the over-used and now dead metaphor of the “invisible hand,” nature and social organs are self-regulating and organizing. There are several questions at work here. First is the empirical: whether this is or is not true. Another is why, and the third is whether this is preferred. The ‘why’ question is not alway addressed, and to an extent it relies on an affirmative answer to the first question. Hayek and Smith accept the proposition that the invisible hand model has merit, and to some extent Hayek’s reasoning for this being preferred is not an affirmative but rather a negative rationale: human reason is limited and prone to errors; our planning is gross and a matter of fumbling, and compared to a nature that has evolved and fine-tuned, our adjustments and grand schemes are doomed to be sub-optimal at best. In his semi-evolutionary perspective Hayek provides a suggestion to why he thinks the free market is self-regulating. It’s clear, too, that for Adam Smith the ‘invisible hand’ was not merely some Platonic Ideal or some supernatural force; it was often a matter of constraints that when combined with actual behavior would guide decisions and actions. Although a principle, his invisible hand was not a priori, but a matter of empirical system conditions.

A pair of contrasting metaphors not mentioned in Hayek’s text or made explicit in Lee’s is that of the organic (spontaneous, self-organizing) vs. the mechanical (‘organization’), the latter a matter of discrete parts and a whole, hierarchical rules, and so on. And what machines further have is a lack of teleology; machines are tools and acquire external purpose. Such is the case with, say, McDonald’s, and profit, which is measured at the level of the aggregate, the corporation. The interrelated ‘ecosystem’ Lee describes — suppliers, the flow of labor, the familial nature of so many relations, and so on — is more a matter of a tangled organic model, precisely what Kant was attempting to untangle in the second half of the 3rd Critique. And organisms do not have ‘purpose,’ per se (a strict means-ends relationship, a ‘what for …’ question and answer), but they possess what Kant calls “Zweckmäßigkeit ohne Zweck,” purposiveness without purpose, what I elsewhere suggest is a rehabilitation of the Aristotelean ‘formal cause’ as a kind of analog to the ‘final cause’ (purpose, end, telos).

But this is taking chapter 17 in a direction that interests me more than it would those who do not study Kant. But I think the relation to Hayek is clear. And while Lee’s description of the situation is likely clear, her failure to analyze it in any depth led to a disregard for so many of its consequences. Following Wales, for example, she sees only the positive in this self-organization that bridges cultures and links so many segments of society. She surfs along on anti-corporate sentiments, invoked strongly with Microsoft and McDonald’s. And throughout the book whenever government or ‘the Law’ are invoked, they are either in the wrong or impotent.

That, however, is moving me off in another direction, and I’ve rambled too long as it is.

In short: “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” is a fun, fast read. It’s informative and suggestive. It raises questions it is unable or unwilling to answer … but at the same time that just opens the door for more discussion.


A slow Saturday in our little household. The cats slept a lot. Ms. S. has gone to work. Last evening we enjoyed anti-government paranoia and science-fiction with “Soft Light.” The evening we got a return to anti-corporate paranoia (see also: “F. Emasculata”) along with cannibalism and bad medicine in “Our Town.”

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