Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food by Jennifer 8. Lee

In The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, Jennifer 8. Lee explores Chinese food around the world. On her travels, she uncovers the origins of the fortune cookie (and why they don't have them in China), General Tso chicken, and chop suey (in a chapter called "The Biggest Culinary Joke Played on One Culture to Another".) She delves into the world of soy sauce, kosher ducks, food delivery, restaurant workers and much more. Along the way she meets many fascinating people: John and Jenny (and their heart breaking story), fortune cookie makers, restaurateurs and immigrants. One thing is for sure, you'll never look at Chinese food the same again.

This book is utterly fascinating. From the very first page, I was hooked. I didn't know all of the locations (in America or around the world) or restaurants to which Lee referred, but the subject matter itself was interesting and very well presented. I loved how the author opened with the lottery winners, who just happened to get their winning numbers for a fortune cookie. She returned to them time and time again throughout her narrative making the book one cohesive unit rather than a bunch of disjointed anecdotes.

One of my favourite parts was when one of the people that Lee met received a fortune cookie that read: Do or do not. There is no try. Lee immediately recognized that it was from The Empire Strikes Back and writes, Yoda our new Confucius is. Priceless!

The other part that I found really interesting was the chapter that offered "a window into the relationship between Jews and Chinese food" called "Why Chow Mein is the Chosen Food of the Chosen People--or, the Kosher Duck Scandal of 1989". This was all new to me, but I wondered how prevalent it was and whether or not it included Jews in Canada. According to Lee, Jews love Chinese food. I won't go into any more details about the relationship, you'll have to read this book for that. I'll just say it's amazing.

To my surprise, soy sauce in the United States and apparently here in Canada doesn't have to be made with soy. Lee explains how this came about and how some people have gone to great lengths to change that. It makes sense to me that all soy sauce should actually contain some soy, but I don't always read the ingredients list. After reading the chapter called "The Soy Sauce Trade Dispute", I immediately went to my soy sauce stash. The little packets (that I had been hoarding like gold) actually are made with soy so I'm going to keep those. My favourite bottled stuff is made with soy-based hydrolyzed plant protein. While it's not the best, it still might qualify as soy sauce. However, I also have some stuff that doesn't contain any soy at all. There just a little left so it'll probably end up in the trash. To my surprise, I actually had a two bottles of the "real" stuff (made with soybeans and naturally brewed) in the refrigerator. Both of those bottles are keepers. When was the last time you read the ingredients on your bottle of soy sauce?

As a final teaser: do you know where the greatest Chinese restaurant in the world is? Well, Lee does. She lays out her research and criteria and comes up with a winner. I'm not going to tell you who the winner was, but I will say it was a surprise.

The research that went into this book was extensive. You can tell not only by the acknowledgements, detailed notes and extensive bibliography that wrap up the book, but also by a statement from Lee in which she states that in the three years she spent on the book, she visited six continents, twenty-three countries and forty-two states (page 251).

Highly recommended. Whether you love Chinese food or not, this book is a fascinating look at Chinese people, culture and food.

For more information about this book, please visit the Hachette Book Group website.

Mating Rituals of the North American WASP by Lauren Lipton

In Mating Rituals of the North American WASP, Peggy Adams discovers that she's married a man she doesn't know after a wild night of drinking in Vegas. She doesn't remember a thing. This isn't a good thing especially since she has a long time boyfriend. Luke, Peggy's new husband, is equally horrified and the two of them are determined to get an annulment as soon as possible. However, Luke's great-aunt, who's thrilled her nephew has decided to marry, makes them an offer that will solve both of their financial problems. Rather than getting an annulment, they make an arrangement that keeps their marriage a secret from their respective partners and keeps the truth from great-aunt Abigail.

This books was unrealistic, predictable, but a whole lot of fun to read. I enjoyed every minute of it. It's pretty well written with some great characters. Even though I thought I knew how it was going to turn out, I didn't want to put the book down. The story was engaging and unique while the characters were larger-than-life. Most of the fun centres on the chaos and the he said/she said situations that come about after Peggy and Luke decide to stay married.

I loved great-aunt Abigail. She was a hoot. I suspected, though, that she knew all along what Luke and Peggy were up to (staying married for the money). I also think that she was somewhere aware of the money troubles that Luke tried to keep from her. She just didn't seem as "out of it" as she was made out to be.

One character that puzzled me was Jeremy, Peggy's date. He didn't really add anything to the story, in my opinion. Wasn't Peggy's life complicated enough without this additional character? I mean she was already pre-engaged to Brock and married to Luke. She didn't seem that flighty that she needed to be dating after all of the other stuff that was going on. The big scene with Peggy, Jeremy and Brock didn't come across as intense as it could have been and seemed a little unnatural.

I wasn't enamoured with the poetry. I couldn't tell if it was good or bad or even mediocre. It's just not my thing. I didn't quite believe the whole scene with the poem that Luke wrote. It felt contrived to me.

Another thing that sort of bothered me. That was use of the word WASP. Is that politically correct? It's so hard to tell these days. I personally don't much like some of the labels we use to describe people, so I try hard not to use them. I'm not sure about this one.

Despite all of these things I really did enjoy the book.

Recommended for the beach, a lazy day in the hammock, or anytime you need a nice light humorous read.

For more information about this book, please visit the Hachette Book Group website.

Want to know what others think? Here's a review from Jonita at The Book Chick and another one from Heather at Books and Quilts. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Get Real by Donald E. Westlake

In Get Real, a production company of reality TV shows decides to create a show about real life thieves. The ideas is that the cameras would follow the gang around doing whatever it is they do, including the planning and execution of a "job". While the producers try to maintain control, but they really have no idea what they've gotten themselves into. The gang have plans to complete the planned job for the show at the same time pulling another "unplanned" job right under the noses of the production company. There's one thing they agree one wants to go to jail.

I really liked this book. Westlake provides plenty of laughs, some pretty good twists, a great story line and tons of interesting and likeable characters. All in all the book was fun to read.

I loved the reality TV based storyline which the back of the book describes as including "some edgy social commentary". I don't watch much reality TV frankly because it doesn't interest me. Well, I'm not sure what even qualifies as "reality" anymore. There's just so much crap on TV these days. I don't watch shows like Survivor, Big Brother or the Amazing Race where real people (wannabe actors?) mostly do weird and/or stupid things for fame or cash. However, I have been known to tune into a few other shows which feature real people and may or may not quality as reality. Anyway, I loved the explanations about reality TV and how the production company takes reality and makes it entertainment (arguably).

As for characters, I especially loved the members of the gang, John (and his pessimistic attitude), Stan, Tiny as well as the others. They made me laugh out loud many times. I'm definitely going to look for more books featuring these guys.

My favourite quotes from the Advance Reading Copy edition, from page 80:
...reality shows do not solve society's problems. They don't even consider society's problems. Reality is escapist entertainment at its most pure and mindless

And from page 233:
If we use actors, then it's got to be a scripted show, so then we need writers, and all at once we're into unions and all kinds of other expenses and it prices us right out of the market. The whole point of reality shows is to give the networks a way to fill airtime on the cheap.

This is the first book I've read by Westlake and I'd love to read more. Unfortunately, Mr. Westlake has passed away, but there's a huge backlist waiting for me. I better get started.

Highly recommended. For those who love reality shows (really?), those who detest them and those who just want a really good book to read.

For more information about this book, please visit the Hachette Book Group website.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Great American Taste Test

America's Most Wanted Recipes by Ron Douglas attempts to duplicate the recipes from America's favourite restaurants. In this taste test, participants were required to try one of the recipes from the book and then go the restaurant to try the "real" thing. After doing so, they were asked to blog about their experiences. Sounds like fun, eh?

Once I got the book, I sat down to pick a recipe and restaurant. Despite being from Canada (we don't have all of these restaurants here) I had many to choose from. Should I pick something from Applebees, Olive Garden, Red Lobster or one of the others? Then I saw it: Dairy Queen's Heath Blizzard on page 81. I absolutely love blizzards. The only problem is that we don't have Heath chocolate bars in Canada, at least not here in Manitoba. I knew that the Skor bar is similar and thought about substituting one of those. Then I saw the recipe tip which suggested trying Reese's Peanut Butter Cups instead. OMG! I love those things. I had a plan.

First to DQ. Although I had a Reese's Peanut Butter Cups Blizzard a long time ago, I remembered very little about it. After the first bite, it all came back to me. It was delicious. The only thing I didn't like was that the chocolate pieces were too big. The great thing about chocolate is that it melts in your mouth. However, when the chocolate bits are this big and then freeze, they don't melt all that much. For me, it almost loses its chocolaty goodness. Other than that, I loved it. Creamy, chocolaty (a little), peanut buttery. Yum!

Next the home made version. As much as I love blizzards, there's just no way I could eat two in one day. So I waited a few days to try the recipe at home. It was so easy. A little chopping followed by putting four very easy-to-find ingredients into the blender until it's mixed up and creamy. The books suggests putting the mixture into the freezer for 20 to 30 minutes for a thicker texture. That sounded good, so into the freezer it went.

After a short stint in the freezer my homemade blizzard was ready for tasting. It was great! Creamy vanilla ice cream with all of the flavours of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. It was a little different than what I had in the restaurant, though. I did chop up the chocolate bars into really small pieces because that's the one thing I didn't like about the "real" one; the chocolate pieces were too big. The other difference was the quality of ice cream. As the DQ blizzard melted, it remained very creamy. Mine at home was a little watery. I believe that could be easily remedied with higher quality ice cream. Or better yet, I could make Dairy Queen's Ice Cream on page 82 of this book. Despite this, my homemade blizzard was delicious. In some ways I enjoyed it more than the "real" thing.

Based on this experience, we will be enjoying this recipe (and many others from the book) many times over.

That's it for this taste test. I had planned on doing a few more before today, but life got in the way. Thanks to the wonderful people over at Atria Books (Simon & Schuster) for allowing me to participate. It was a blast.

Stay tuned for my review of the book which I'll do once I try one or two more recipes. I might even conduct another taste test.

In the meantime, if you want more information about the book or to take a peek inside, please visit the Simon & Schuster website.