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Fortune Cookies- Chinese cookie born in America
Latest Updated by 2003-06-10 09:21:07

The fortune cookie is as Chinese as chop suey and the flaming pu-pu platter -- which is to say it's not.

Okay, 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 machine.

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."

Editor: Wings

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