Fortune Cookies, Char Siu Pork and Time Travel

You won’t find fortune cookies in Hong Kong, or in other parts of China for that matter. Apparently they are a very old Japanese invention. They became Chinese in the United States. I presume this probably occurred to some degree in the same way that Pakistani and Bangladeshi food in the UK became Indian–through a lack of understanding by the dominant culture of ethnic-national differences in groups.  Pakistani and Bangladeshi migrants found that, in general, the British could locate the Indian subcontinent, but not individual regions and groups, so these groups generalised their geography when identifying their foodways commercially.  Thus, to my mind, it is likely that in the gold-rush era, which saw large influxes of Asians into the western US, the (not so) subtleties that distinguish Japanese from Chinese were lost on the miners who were eating this food. After all the miners referred to these restaurants as Chow Chows and Chinkies. Hardly sensitive or subtle.

The San Francisco restauranteurs that are credited with starting the trend of offering a fortune cookie most likely saw an opportunity to capitalise on the mystique provided by fortune and its links to western (mis)conceptions of Confucianism and ran with it. When the Japanese who baked the cookies were interred in WW2, there was a further comercial need and opportunity for the Chinese food producers in the US to take on the production responsibility.  The fact that the Chinese immigrants who migrated to the western US and then translated their food to this American context were creative, coupled with circumstance, gives us a modern foodway that was carved out of American history, particularly in that of the Western US. This particular foodway, recognised as such or not, subsequently defines both those with and without a Chinese ethnicity. 

My memories of Chinese dishes eaten at the restaurant owned by the parents of my friend Ron (the Golden Dragon) when I was a child bear little resemblance to what I find in Hong Kong, either in the Cantonese or the other regionally focused restaurants that are in the city. I recall these meals were happy, largely because of their routine and associations with moments of family tranquility and mirth. They always began in the same way, with pork and seeds.  This consisted of sliced bar-b-que pork, which had a red coating, with a dish of sesame seeds and hot yellow mustard for dipping.  My father would dip liberally and challenge the children to eat. We would, but always knowing that it would inspire yelps of pain tempered with giggles as mustard met sinus tissue and then abated.  One does find similar pork in Hong Kong–Char Siu Pork, but here it is not served with the seeds and mustard, at least not outside the confines of our flat.   In our flat, this is a dish made to bridge here and there and to blur a boundary between now and then.  It is a way to locate and find home in a place where one often struggles to find connection because of a lack of shared language.

With the madeleine of Proust, the recognition of the past in the here and now is facilitated by the food, but also like the memory of the madeleine it is a connection to be worked at just as it is pre-intellect. The dish’s divergence from the authentic renders it as neither here nor there, past nor present.  Pork and Seeds is not legitimately a dish of Hong Kong and the “real” Chinese element (the pork) is only an approximation of that authenticity that is specific to the Golden Dragon. It shouldn’t work for time-travel, particularly when one considers that according to Proust the madeleine effect is like the high of a drug; the sensations of belonging and remembering are dulled and diluted with each return. But somehow it works, when worked at.

Proust’s narrator toils to translate the sensation into meaning with the third and fourth tasting.  But like the narrator’s experience with the cookie, the work involves going beyond the language of authenticity, and focusing instead on the sensation. For Proust it was the texture of crumbs in tea. For me it is the friction of the pork with its sticky coating, the mustard’s wet viscosity and bite, and the texture of seeds.  In this moment of sensation it is possible to translate the familiarity from a childhood sense of belonging-in-place to this place and time of non-permanence. The pungent, almost pointed, aroma of the mustard in sinuses brings one sharply, if only briefly, to a world that is spatio-temporally both here and there, then and now.  The food enables a capacity to time travel; to fold the past-there onto a present-here in a way that is necessarily beyond language, and as such more real than what is spoken and described and which offers a possibility for creative belonging and a kind of cosmopolitanism that is everywhere at once. 

Time travel can be a solitary activity and my version of pork and seeds are a sort of prosthetic madeleine aimed at a social transcendence of time and space. I contrive to produce a memory that is dredged up from my past, unshared in its original with my children and reproduced in a hybrid authenticity of here and now. At some level I re-produce this memory in order to create a future memory for them. As much as I desire the longevity of this memory, I also know that they will select their own.  

GeoFoodieJennifer 8 Lee’s article on the origin of fortune cookies can be found here.  This post by UCC proveds a more general history of Chinese food in the United States.

You can find a transcript of the section of Swann’s Way where the madeleine makes its appearance here.

For more on Proust, Memory, and a contrast with Oliver Sack’s book, The Abyss, see this post by Marie Mann, titled Marcel Proust and The New Yorker.

This article on the NPR web site goes some way toward arguing that the madeleine was just a literary flourish, and in fact the real madeleine was really a piece of dry toast, which is somewhat less poetic unless you are Nigel Slater (who has written a whole book (and movie) focusing on the relationship between toast and his childhood. You can find the Amazon description of Slater’s book here.

How to reference this post

Blake, M (2013) Fortune Cookies, Char Siu Pork and Time Travel. 9 April 2013 (Accessed: insert date accessed here)

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5 thoughts on “Fortune Cookies, Char Siu Pork and Time Travel

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  3. How did I miss this wonderful observation/memory until now? Very well said. I will never again look at Chinese pork in the same way. Or SOS, or hash browns, or (especially) Caesar salad as I learned to make it by watching a waiter make it tableside in a favorite SF restaurant. I think that may be why I cannot make the dressing in anything but a certain flat, white dish. Wouldn’t be the same if I measured the ingredients or followed a recipe.

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