Fortune Cookie

fortune cookies

A fortune cookie is a folded wafer cookie with a piece of paper inside with words of wisdom, an aphorism, or a vague prophecy. The message may also include a Chinese phrase with translation or a list of lucky numbers used by some in lotteries (some of which have become actual winning numbers). Fortune cookies are often served as a dessert in Chinese restaurants in the United States and some other countries, but are absent in China.

The exact origin of fortune cookies is unclear, though various immigrant groups in California claim to have popularized them in the early 20th century, basing their recipe on a traditional Japanese cracker. Fortune cookies have been summarized as being ‘introduced by the Japanese, popularized by the Chinese, but ultimately … consumed by Americans.’ In 1992, Wonton Food of Brooklyn, NY attempted to expand its fortune cookie business into China, but gave up because the product was considered ‘too American.’

As far back as the 19th century, a cookie very similar in appearance to the modern fortune cookie was made in Kyoto, Japan, and there is a Japanese temple tradition of random fortunes, called ‘o-mikuji.’ The Japanese version of the cookie differs in several ways: they are a little bit larger; are made of darker dough; and their batter contains sesame and miso rather than vanilla and butter. They contain a fortune; however, the small slip of paper was wedged into the bend of the cookie rather than placed inside the hollow portion. This kind of cookie is called ‘tsujiura senbei’ and are still sold in some regions as lucky items to start a Happy New Year.

Makoto Hagiwara of Golden Gate Park’s Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco is reported to have been the first person in the US to have served the modern version of the cookie when he did so at the tea garden in the 1890s or early 1900s. The fortune cookies were made by a San Francisco bakery, Benkyodo. David Jung, founder of the Hong Kong Noodle Company in Los Angeles, has made a competing claim that he invented the cookie in 1918. San Francisco’s mock Court of Historical Review attempted to settle the dispute in 1983. During the proceedings, a fortune cookie was introduced as a key piece of evidence with a message reading, ‘S.F. Judge who rules for L.A. Not Very Smart Cookie.’ A federal judge of the Court of Historical Review determined that the cookie originated with Hagiwara and the court ruled in favor of San Francisco. Subsequently, the city of Los Angeles condemned the decision.

Up to around World War II, fortune cookies were known as ‘fortune tea cakes’—likely reflecting their origins in Japanese tea cakes. They moved from being a confection dominated by Japanese-Americans to one dominated by Chinese-Americans sometime around World War II. One theory for why this occurred is because of the Japanese American internment during World War II, which forcibly put over 100,000 Japanese-Americans in camps, including those who had produced fortune cookies. This gave an opportunity for Chinese manufacturers. The fortune cookie industry changed dramatically after the fortune cookie machine was invented in the late 1960s by Edward Louis in San Francisco, and later improved upon by Shuck Yee from Oakland in 1973. The machine allowed for mass production of fortune cookies, leading to them becoming the novelty and courtesy dessert many Americans are familiar with after their meals at Chinese restaurants today. They have been served in Chinese restaurants in Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, India, Italy, Mexico,United Kingdom, Finland, as well as other countries.

There is a common joke in the United States involving fortune cookies that involves appending ‘in bed’ to the end of the fortune, usually creating a sexual innuendo or other bizarre messages (e.g., ‘Our greatest glory is not in never falling but in rising every time we fall [in bed]’). A gallows humor variation to this joke involves appending the phrase ‘in jail’ instead.

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