A Sweet Surprise Awaits You

On the night of March 30, 2005, the Powerball jackpot was 25 million dollars. The grand prize winner was in Tennessee, but all over the United States, one hundred and ten second-place winners came forward. Normally just three or four players guess all but the last digit and claim a secondary prize, but this time something was clearly different.

Lottery officials were flustered, unsure if there was a computer glitch or a hack in the system, but when they asked the winners how they picked their numbers each had the same response: from a fortune cookie.

chinese fortune cookie
Fortune cookies by Randy Heinitz

What we call Chinese food (including the fortune-filled cookies) has become an integral part of the American culture and cuisine, with a complex history that dates back to the 19th Century.

Around the 1850s, new Chinese immigrants were seen as a threat to jobs occupied by American males such as mining, farming and manual labor. After a wave of anti-Chinese violence,  Chinese immigrants began to work in laundries and restaurants: industries traditionally associated with women’s work.

chinese takeout carton box
Even the typical Chinese takeout carton does not come from China, but was created in New York and designed to hold shellfish. Photograph by Scott J. Waldron

“Chinese” restaurants began to appear, but with new dishes designed to appeal to an Americans who tend to want foods that are sweet and fried. The most famous of these faux-Chinese recipies is Chop suey, which translates roughly as ‘odds and ends.’ Chop Suey is as American as apple pie, which leads us to another essential ingredient for an American culinary audience: dessert.

The fortune cookie appeared in the United States in the 1920s, but it was not imported from China. Still, many contemporary cookies and their fortunes are made by Chinese Americans.

looper
Fortune-cutting machine in Yang’s Fortunes, Inc. by Morgan Dewey

Steven Yang, founder of Yang’s Fortunes Incorporated in San Francisco, prints the paper fortunes for cookie factories around the country—including the fortunes for Panda Express. A typical 50-pound box at his factory contains 300,000 printed slips derived from the company’s list of 5,000 unique fortunes.

fortune factory
Yang’s Fortunes, Inc. factory floor in Dogpatch by Morgan Dewey

The fortunes are mostly written by Yang’s daughter, Lisa, who gathers sayings from books or quotes, or simply makes phrases up.  

Fortunes, it turns out, are deceptively difficult to write, as they must be upbeat, generally applicable, and, above all, inoffensive. A fortune that reads, “lighten up,” for example, could be taken as a critique of a person’s weight.

woodblock print fortune cookie
1878 Japanese woodblock print discovered by Yasuko Nakamachi of Kanagawa University via Japan’s National Diet Library

Still, neither fortunes nor cookies are Chinese in origin. The woodblock print above evidences the cookie’s ties to Japan. Such evidence is bolstered by memories of Japanese Americans like Sally Osaki, who recalls snacking on fortune cookies as a child and reading fortunes in Japanese.

fortune cookie chronicles
Cover of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, a book by Jennifer 8. Lee

Author and journalist Jennifer 8. Lee interviewed Osaki and others, and even took a trip to a shinto shrine outside Kyoto, Japan in order to further investigate the Japanese origins of contemporary fortune cookies.

japanese tea garden copy
Japanese tea garden with cookies by Hilary Perkins

What she found was a larger, darker and less-sweet ancestor to the American fortune cookie. Yet if these snacks have such clear Japanese heritage, why do we eat fortunes with Chinese food rather than at sushi restaurants?

Like the Chinese immigrants before them, many Japanese immigrants to the United States chose to make their living in the food industry. The Japanese also opted to cater to American tastes, and Japanese families frequently owned, operated, and otherwise worked in (American-style) Chinese restaurants, and ultimately introduced Americanized fortune cookies into the mix.

japanese variants
Japanese fortune-free flat cookie variants and paper fortune tree by Avery Trufelman

During World War II, many Japanese Americans were sent to concentration camps, forced to leave businesses behind. After a four-year period, the concentration camps, closed, and the cultural source of fortunate cookies was obscured and a pervasive association had spread: fortune cookies were henceforth broadly thought of as Chinese.

cookie factory
Golden Gate Cookie Factory by Morgan Dewey

The fortune cookie has become a global phenomenon, found in countries around the world. Except in China. They still don’t eat fortune cookies in China.

festive fortunes
Festive custom fortunes from Yang’s Fortunes, Inc. by Morgan Dewey

Comments (22)

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  1. “[M]any Japanese immigrants to the United States chose to make their living in the food industry. The Japanese also opted to cater to American tastes, and Japanese families frequently owned, operated, and otherwise worked in (American-style) Chinese restaurants, and ultimately introduced Americanized fortune cookies into the mix.”

    Actually, Japanese restaurants (serving Japanese dishes like udon noodle soup and inexpensive “American” food) were not only familiar to Americans in the late 19th century, but also quite popular for a time…

    http://eccentricculinary.com/the-great-sushi-craze-of-1905-part-1/
    http://eccentricculinary.com/the-great-sushi-craze-of-1905-part-2/

  2. Rich Otley

    Listened ALL the way to the end, Roman. Comedy gold! No spoiler here but my literal LOL woke my wife up who was of course….

    1. Jon

      Loved the ending. My friends change it to ” a Speedo”. A very different mental image.

  3. Ren

    It was lovely and adorable to hear how much Carver has grown! Great episode, especially the end.

  4. Bstett

    But I thought the entire point of the episode was about the powerball and how 100+ people got the winning number. You never said how that number was leaked, who did it how it was resolved, etc. you just went into the history of the fortune cookie which could have been a completely different episode. What a bummer of an ending.

    1. meh

      It wasn’t leaked. They all go the number from fortune cookies. That was the point. You apparently missed it.

  5. hotknitter

    Your comment that moon cakes (a Chinese delicacy served on special occasions) look like and taste like hockey pucks was highly insulting. Makes me think the person who said it should not be on public radio. The comment reflects a closed mind. All foods are a matter of personal taste and there are nicer ways to say something is not to one’s taste. Shame on you.

    1. Kurt

      That was the Chinese American author being interviewed for the piece, not the producer or anyone from 99pi.

  6. Jesse

    How I know to not take a comment seriously – they end with the finger pointing, stereotypical 1950s mom saying of “shame on you.”

    I’m sure you’re a very active SJW and relish any chance you get to become insulted, but I’ve lived in China and Vietnam, and it’s very rare to meet a native of either country who likes moon cakes. If you think calling them hockey pucks is insulting, you should hear what some of the Vietnamese and Chinese I’ve talked to about moon cakes have said about them. One of the nicer things I’ve heard is, “No one likes those except for old people.” In fact, calling a food offered during mid-Autumn Festival strictly Chinese is insulting to the Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Hong Kongers, Indonesian, Japanese, Filipinos, and Singaporeans who make them as well – some of whom make these on more than just special occasions. And did you mean Chinese or Cantonese? Or are all Chinese people the same to you and your faux outrage?

    But that would mean experiencing the world from beyond your keyboard and having a clue about what you’re getting so insulted by. How about fruitcake? Do you turn bright red and run to your keyboard to defend the honor of fruitcake when it gets trashed? I doubt it.

    1. Brandon

      I couldn’t figure out what you guys were referring to until I heard it. Such a perfect ending.

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