© Denzil Green
Fortune Cookies are crispy cookies, that are hollow in the centre. Or rather, they are a shell formed of cookie, folded into a bow shape.
Inside the cookie, there is a strip of paper. On the paper is printed a sentence or two telling your “fortune.”
Fortune Cookies are a North American thing; they are not served in China. The concept of a dessert after a meal isn’t a Chinese one. Serving Fortune Cookies provides a dessert for Westerners at the end of a Chinese meal, for which there normally isn’t one.
The cookies are made from flour, sugar, egg white, water lecithin, soybean oil, vanilla and yellow dye. The entire process is handled by fully-automated machines.
Machines mix the batter, and squirt it on a baking conveyor belt in 3 to 5 inch (7 1/2 to 12 1/2 cm) circles. The conveyor built then passes through an oven, where they are baked for around 3 minutes at approximately 300 F (150 C.) As the conveyor belt takes them out of the ovens, a machine puts a fortune on top of each one, then another machine presses them together to seal the fortune inside while the cookies are still warm and pliable. This has to be done in such a way that the paper doesn’t stick to the cookie, and so that the paper remains clean, not absorbing any grease. The cookie becomes hard when it cools. The conveyor belt then hands them to a wrapping machine that seals them in plastic, then onto packing.
The sayings can be predictive or instructive. Not many sayings are actually Chinese. They are written by retired white people or ordinary housewives. Fortune Cookies have even been made with slogans in the for political campaigns, and for carrying marriage proposals.
The largest manufacturer of Fortune Cookies in the world is The Wonton Food Company in Long Island City, Queens, New York.
Some sources, struggling for a way to explain the origins of Fortune Cookies, say that moon cakes in the 1300s were used in China as a way to secretly communicate with each other while resisting the Mongols.
More concrete sources, though, attribute the invention of Chinese Fortune Cookies to a Japanese man, Makoto Hagiwara (died 1925). He lived in San Francisco. He had come from Yaminashi Prefecture, Japan. In 1894, San Francisco held a Midwinter Exposition in Golden Gate Park. A Japanese “village” was part of the display. The city wanted to make it a permanent thing in some way. Hagiwara proposed keeping it going as a Japanese Tea Garden, to introduce Americans to Japanese green tea, and to the Japanese style of gardening. At first the city hired him as curator, but then later he leased it outright from the city. He lived right there at the garden, and invested his own money in adding plants, etc. He sold tea and cookies to make an income.
In 1900, according to some, the Tea Garden lease was taken away from him by a bigoted mayor, Mayor James Phelan (mayor from 1896 to 1902.) Hagiwara set up another one across from Golden Gate Park. The original one fell into disrepair. In 1907, under mayor Eugene Schmitz (1902–1907), who was run out of office for graft and corruption, he was given the lease back, for $1 a year.
Reputedly, Hagiwara gave out cookies with “thank you” messages inside to people who had helped him get his job back, and who were returning as customers. It is unclear, though, whether he actually gave them away, or sold them.
The date usually cited though is 1914, which doesn’t make a lot of sense: why wouldn’t it have been 1907? His grandson, George Hagiwara, believed it was sometime between 1907 and 1909.
Hagiwara went to Japan in 1910, and brought back senbei skillets. Senbei are like Japanese cookie crackers. Many people see a connection between this and the shells of fortune cookies.
Hagiwara also served his cookies at the 1915 World Fair held in San Francisco.
Four generations of Hagiwaras in total lived at and managed the park, until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, when the park was taken away from them again and they were imprisoned in an internment camp at Topaz, Utah.
Another possible inventor is David Tsung from Canton, owner of Hong Kong Noodle Company in Los Angeles. He claimed to have invented them in 1918. He gave them out to unemployed people on the street with bible scripture verses written inside by a Presbyterian minister friend of his.
In any event, Fortune Cookies were certainly being made widely in San Francisco by the 1940s. During World War Two, many servicemen passed through California, particularly San Francisco, on their way to fight in the Pacific. In 1945, there were over 300 Chinese restaurants in San Francisco. Coming home, they passed through San Francisco again. They got fortune cookies in Chinese restaurants in San Francisco, and starting expecting them at their Chinese restaurants back home.
By the late 1950s, you could even buy them in supermarkets.
The folding machines to make them were invented by Edward Louie of Lotus Fortune Cookie Company in San Francisco. Before, they used to be bent with chopsticks.
In a mock trial held in 1983 by the “San Francisco Court of Historical Review and Appeal”, Federal Judge Daniel M. Hanlon ruled in favour of Hagiwara being the inventor.
The Wonton Food Company tried to sell Fortune Cookies in China in 1993, but they never took off there.
Burke, Kerry. The secret history of fortune cookies. Columbia News Service. 3 April 2001. Retrieved on 13 March 2005 from http://www.jrn.columbia.edu/studentwork/cns/2002-04-03/320.asp
Fisk, Natasha. The Japanese Tea Garden (Fortune Cookies). In “The Guardsman”. City College of San Francisco. 22 March 1999.
Fitzerman-Blue, Micah. The Fortune Cookie in America. In Northwestern University Journal of Race and Gender Criticism, Volume 1, Issue 2. Pages 15 to 30. Spring 2004.