When I go to Panda Express (which is way too often for my good health probably – honey walnut shrimp, yum!) I always have to remind the counter guy to give me my fortune cookie. He forgets about 3 times out of 5 and I feel really deprived, not having that single strip of paper with a cryptic one line fortune inside!
Just today I read that for $29.99 I could buy my own fortune cookie maker from Sunbeam and then cook up individualized fortune cookies two at a time for me and my friends. (Or enemies, I guess.) Where’s the fun in that? No, I want the fortune that Fate intended me to have!
Traditionally, the fortunes were Confucian phrases about life. Or, you can go with a legend about a revolutionary named Chu Yuang Chang, who made the first fortune cookies in China during the 14th century Mongolian invasion. He disguised himself as a Taoist priest and entered Mongolian-occupied cities to hand out “moon cakes,” or pastries stuffed with lotus seed paste, which contained hidden instructions for the Chinese uprising. I kind of like that idea – more dramatic!
Others believe that the fortune cookies have Japanese roots in traditional tsujiura senbei (rice cakes with paper fortunes stuffed inside), made at the Hyotanyama Inari shrine in the 19th century. Another group of fortune cookie enthusiasts thinks that the idea started around the same time, but in this instance by Chinese railroad workers in America who would hand out cakes stuffed with holiday wishes.
And there’s a third claim by various Japanese-American chefs that they invented the idea in the early 1900s.
Fortune cookies are made from four basic ingredients: sugar, flour, eggs and water. Before the mechanization of fortune cookie baking, the method was simple and painstaking; the batter was mixed and baked in small circles, and bakers folded the still-warm circles into formation by hand, inserting the paper fortune and allowing the cookie to cool and harden. The making of fortune cookies became possible on a massive scale around 1960, when a bakery businessman invented a machine that could easily fold the cookies into their trademark shape. Now fortune cookie machines like the Kitamura FCM-8006W can make up to 8,000 cookies in an hour.
Who writes the fortunes, you may ask? I found a 2005 article from The New Yorker that answered this question for one of the largest companies, Wonton Food, Inc. From the article:
Donald Lau manages the company’s accounts payable and receivable, negotiates with insurers, and, somewhat incidentally, composes the fortunes that go inside the fortune cookies, of which Wonton is the world’s largest manufacturer. Each day, Wonton’s factory churns out four million Golden Bowl-brand cookies, which are sold to several hundred venders, who, in turn, sell them to most of the forty thousand Chinese restaurants across the country…
Lau never expected to become a fortune-cookie writer. After graduating from Columbia with degrees in engineering and business, he joined Bank of America, then ran a company that exported logs from the Pacific Northwest to China. In the early eighties, he was hired by a Chinatown noodle manufacturer, which eventually expanded into fortune cookies. The firm bought the Long Island City plant, and it soon became apparent that its antiquated catalogue of fortunes would have to be updated. “We knew we needed to add new sayings,” Lau said. “I was chosen because my English was the best of the group, not because I’m a poet.”
After all that research, maybe I’m not as opposed to writing my own fortunes after all! I have no idea whether Mr. Lau still writes the fortunes for his company…
Here are some past winners of fortune cookie contests:
- The person next to you was secretly eyeing your food.
- You will not marry someone like your mother in-law.
- Confucius says: If three people are traveling with you, there must be one you can learn from.
- Don’t change with the leaves around you; stay your true color.
- Bad times always pass – just like the passing wind.
- Worrying is like a rocking chair – something to do that gets you nowhere.
- “Give me liberty or give me death”… wouldn’t it be better to just give me food?
- I see lots of Chinese food in your future.
- The lazy man works twice as hard. The cheap man spends twice as much.
What was the best fortune you ever received?