It’s nice, at the end of a delicious meal of Chinese food, to sit back and unwrap the traditional fortune cookie. The little note inside has become so entrenched in our culture that we even have the saying ‘fortune cookie wisdom’, but did you know that these sweet and crunchy purveyors of knowledge are actually an American invention.
Yep, fortune cookies first sprung up in California around the turn of the 20th century, and that is practically all that is known for sure about these tasty treats. There are several theories and rumors about the origins of the fortune cookie. For instance, one story claims that a Chinese immigrant living in Los Angeles, and the founder of the Hong Kong Noodle Company, invented the cookie in 1918. Apparently he made them in order to distribute to the many poor people he saw congregating near his shop. The cookies were relatively cheap to make, and he would pass them out for free to people on the streets. The story goes that each cookie contained a piece of Bible scripture written on a slip of paper, because the man who was handing them out, David Jung, was not only a small business owner and an American Chinese man, he was also a Presbyterian minister.
Another history tells of a young Japanese immigrant named Makoto Hagiwara who famously designed the beautiful Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. Hagiwara lost his job as a gardener due to anti-Japanese sentiment, but later regained his position and, the story goes, he designed a cookie in 1914 that included a thank you note inside to those who gave him his job back. He began passing out these cookies at the Japanese Tea Garden, and in 1915, they were displayed at the Panama-Pacific Exhibition, San Francisco’s world fair.
Fortune cookies became much more commonly served in Chinese restaurants in America in the mid-1940s, after World War II. Desserts that would suit a Western palate were not traditionally part of Chinese cuisine, and the cookies offered Americans something somewhat familiar, with a gimmicky twist, to end their meals with.
Those early fortunes featured Biblical sayings, or quotes and lessons summarized and shortened from philosophers and thinkers such as Confucius and Ben Franklin. Later the fortunes came to offer sage advice, recommended lottery numbers, jokes, and riddles. Today messages are usually somewhat upbeat, leaving the diner feeling positive about the future…either that or mystified as variously cryptic, nonsensical, feel-good, hectoring, bland, or mystifying.
Fortune cookies were originally made by hand until, in 1964 Edward Louie of the Lotus Fortune Cookie Company in San Francisco, automated the process. He saw that by creating a machine that folds the dough and slips in the fortune he could reduce the amount of workers he would need to pay. Today, the world’s largest fortune cookie manufacturer, Wonton Food Inc. of Long Island City, in Queens NY ships out 60 million cookies a month.