Ask your average American what associations they have with fortune cookies, and the predictable answer is that they’re the dessert that comes at the end of a meal at Chinese-American restaurants, served either with the bill or in the delivery bag along with the chopsticks, packets of sweet-and-sour sauce, and napkins. They might mention the short messages written on the paper tucked inside the folded cookie, which these days usually resemble a vague idiom more than an actual fortune: “You can’t expect to be a lucky dog if you’re always growling,” “Don’t let what you can’t do interfere with what you can do…”
These assumptions are accurate, but the history of the fortune cookie is much more complicated than you may have thought. Jennifer 8. Lee is the journalist and producer behind the documentary The Search for General Tso and the author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, an investigation into Chinese Food in America. On the newest episode of Gastropod, Lee details the fortune cookie’s origins, which, in the U.S., actually can be traced back to the many Japanese people operating Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where the cookies were made on iron grills. In certain regions of Japan, cookies folded around paper can be found referenced in art and literature as early as the 1870s.
The reason fortune cookies became synonymous with the Chinese is due largely to a shameful era of American history: the internment of Japanese-Americans and Japanese immigrants ordered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II. With Japanese families forced into camps, their businesses were abandoned, and Chinese people became the predominant owners of Chinese restaurants and the equipment used to make fortune cookies.
Over the past several decades, the process of making fortune cookies has become more industrial, with most relying on machines that can produce up to six thousand cookies per hour. Some factories, like Golden Gate in San Francisco, still use old fashioned machines – described by Lee as “custom Rube Goldberg-like devices [that turn] out like little yellow circles and then you had a human at the other end that needed to fold them.” It’s a slower process, however, resulting in Golden Gate producing about ten thousand cookies per day.
To learn more about the history of fortune cookies – which includes a fake trial between the cities of L.A. and San Francisco, big lotto wins, and the writer’s block suffered by those who write the fortunes – listen to this week’s Gastropod.