The fortune cookie is as Chinese as chop suey and the flaming
pu-pu platter -- which is to say it's not.
so maybe it's not so pleasant, but surely you're surprised
to hear that fortune cookies were born in America. Where in
America is a matter of debate. The conventional wisdom is
that they first appeared in Los Angeles 90 years ago. Seems
a Cantonese immigrant named David Jung thought the homeless
people near his bakery could use an uplifting message, not
to mention a snack. So he folded scraps of pithy, positive
thinking into cookies and made history.
Not so fast, say San Franciscans. They contend that by 1907
Makota Hagiwara, a caretaker of the Japanese Tea Garden in
that city around the turn of the century, had created cookies
bearing thank you notes, which helped him in a dispute with
the city's mayor. Further, they say, he displayed his invention
at the 1915 Panama Exhibition.
Disputes over such weighty matter usually go unresolved.
Not this one. The question of who holds claim to the legacy
of the fortune cookie actually made it to the Court of Historical
Review, a San Francisco mock court, in 1983. The judge, in
a ruling that no doubt sparked charges that he was a homer,
sided with San Francisco, declaring it the rightful "fortune
cookie capital of the world."
Less murky are the Chinese roots of the American invention.
As long ago as the 12th century, Chinese monks fighting the
Mongols fueled their rebellion through plans hidden in moon
cakes. A truly revolutionary use of dough. But once the modern
fortune cookie made its entrance as a meal closer, it remained
remarkably unchanged for almost 40 years. It wasn't until
around 1960 that the Lotus Fortune Cookie Company in San Francisco
unveiled a machine that could fold the cookies in half --
a lot faster than using chop sticks -- and soon thereafter
the industry bowed to American sensibilities by coming out
with the first individually-wrapped, suitably-sanitized snacks.
But let's face it: Who cares about the cookie?
Most people can't wait to crumble the thing to get at the
sliver of wisdom inside. Way back, the messages were simple
proverbs or bits of Scripture. By the 1930s English variations
on elliptical Confucian logic crept in -- cryptic ditties
like "Rotten wood cannot be carved, nor a wall of dung be
trowelled." Some fortune writers took an American slant, lifting
bits from Poor Richard's Almanac; others offered early-day
versions of psychic hotlines.
Today none of that works. Fortune cookie message companies,
such as United Automation Technology in Massachusetts -- they
churn out the slips with the smiley faces -- concentrate on
direct, feel-good tidbits. Some humor but nothing too complex
and, above all, nothing negative. More on the order of a daily
affirmation, such as "Your sparkling eyes give a healing light
to those you meet." "All people want to hear is what lovers
tell lovers, not the truth" says Gregory Louie of Lotus Fortune
Cookie and the son of the man who invented the cookie-folding
This is not the case in China. There, people still wrestle
with messages such as "The only way to catch a tiger cub is
to go into the tiger's den" and "Constant grinding can turn
an iron rod into a needle." Then again, they haven't been
doing this all that long. It was only a few years ago that
the cookies began showing up in China. They were advertised
as "Genuine American Fortune Cookies."