Where the hell did the fortune cookie come from, anyway?
How they were invented is a matter of some dispute, not where they were invented — which was California. The magic happened approximately 100 years ago, when a Japanese company in that state decided to make a modern American version of a temple cookie that had been made in Japan for centuries called omikuji, which contained a random fortune tucked inside a cookie made with miso batter. The California version was lighter and smaller, and the fortunes, of course, were in English. It was supposedly first made in the U.S. by a guy named Makoto Hagiwara, who served the cookies in a Japanese tea garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
Another story, also recited by Wikipedia, was that a Chinese guy named David Jung from Los Angeles invented the cookie in 1918, and manufactured it at the Hong Kong Noodle Company.
Either way, the misshapen and hollow pastry became the symbolic conclusion of every Chinese-American meal. The cookie is made with a very rudimentary sugar-and-flour paste leavened with sodium bicarbonate, and the originators apparently never intended anyone to eat them. Until recently the cookies remained a Chinese-American phenomenon, though I’ve heard reports that they are now available in Beijing.
Over the years, fortunes have changed in tone and length. At first they were familiar aphorisms (“Man does not live by bread alone”); then for a while in the 1960s, you’d sometimes see satirical fortunes, such as the famous “Help, I’m trapped in a fortune cookie factory.” Now, they often consist of business advice, or are unintelligible.
In fact, many of the new northern Chinese restaurants in Flushing, and other restaurants aimed at recent immigrants in Sunset Park and Manhattan’s Chinatown, simply don’t serve them.
Here in New York, we have our own peculiar tradition. As each fortune is read by the guests sitting around the table after a Chinese meal, the words “in bed” are automatically added to the end of the fortune, after a brief pause.
Below are the results with a pile of fortunes Fork in the Road has collected over the last few months. Feel free to add your own in the comments.
Good beginning is half done, in bed.
Judge not according to the appearance, in bed.
For success today look first to yourself, in bed.
You will be unusually successful in business, in bed.
He who hesitates is last, in bed.
Force equals too much; effort equals too little; being equals enough, in bed.
You are filled with life’s most precious treasure … Hope! In bed.
Today you should be a passenger. Stay close to a driver for a day, in bed.
When you get something for nothing, you just haven’t been billed for it yet, in bed.
The traditional method of opening involves squeezing the plastic packaging until a loud “pop” is heard.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 6, 2012