A Sweet Surprise Awaits You

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
It was the night of March 30, 2005 and the Powerball Jackpot was $25 million. On TV, the white ping pong balls rolled out one by one as the host announced the winning numbers,

Avery Trufelman:
22, 28, 32, 33, 39, and your Powerball is 42.

Roman Mars:
And that’s producer Avery Trufelman.

Avery Trufelman:
And there was a winner in Tennessee. But the way the Powerball drawings work, they’re usually some second-place winners who guess all of the numbers except for the very last one. On average, there are three or four of these players.

Roman Mars:
But on March 30, 2005, there were 110 second place winters.

Jennifer 8. Lee:
Was there a computer glitch that played all the same number? Has someone compromised the system?

Avery Trufelman:
This is journalist Jennifer 8. Lee.

Jennifer 8. Lee:
Lottery officials are panicking now because something is up.

Roman Mars:
So the next day as the winners around the United States came to collect, the Powerball officials asked them …

Jennifer 8. Lee:
“So where’d you get your number from?”

Avery Trufelman:
And each of them had the same answer. They had gotten their numbers from a fortune cookie.

Roman Mars:
They were different cookies in different states, but they all had the same fortune and the same lucky numbers … very lucky numbers.

Jennifer 8. Lee:
And so it just sort of made you realize like how much fortune cookies and Chinese food have become an American ritual.

Roman Mars:
Chinese food along with pizza and the frankfurter has been adopted and modified to become American cuisine, rooted in some good old-fashioned American xenophobia.

Avery Trufelman:
In the early waves of Chinese immigration in the 1850s, the new Chinese population worked mostly as miners and farmers and laborers; and Americans, as ever, were concerned about these new immigrants taking away jobs.

Jennifer 8. Lee:
And it was actually only after a huge anti-Chinese backlash that the Chinese actually moved into two fields, one was laundry and the other one was a restaurant. So they started cleaning and cooking, which are women’s work, and thus they were safe and no longer a threat to the American male.

Roman Mars:
And as their livelihoods depended on it, Chinese restaurant owners made up dishes to cater to American tastes.

Jennifer 8. Lee:
American’s basically like things that are sweet and that are fried and are chicken.

Avery Trufelman:
And that’s how dishes like chop suey were invented. Chop suey, the name actually means assorted pieces like odds and ends.

Jennifer 8. Lee:
Oh, chop suey is the biggest culinary joke that one culture has ever played on another.

Roman Mars:
Chop suey is not a real Chinese dish at all. It’s as American as apple pie. And speaking of apple pie …

Jennifer 8. Lee:
Americans want dessert because we are American and we like things which are sweet and fatty, so you needed a dessert.

Avery Trufelman:
And as Chinese desserts go, there aren’t that many options that the American pallet would go for.

Jennifer 8. Lee:
The Chinese desserts, there is the mooncake which tastes and looks like a hockey puck, but there’s not a lot of stuff.

Roman Mars:
And so around the 1920s, the fortune cookie somehow enters the American-Chinese restaurant culture. Where they came from originally is a bit of a mystery, but we’ll get to that.

Avery Trufelman:
First, let’s make this perfectly clear. The cookies are not from China.

Steven Yang:
I don’t know why, but Chinese they don’t eat the fortune cookie.

Avery Trufelman:
Steven Yang is the founder of “Yang’s Fortunes Incorporated” in San Francisco.

Roman Mars:
Chinese people in China don’t eat fortune cookies, but Americans consume billions of them, which means great business for Steven because he prints a lot of the paper fortunes that go inside fortune cookies.

Steven Yang:
If you go anyway, whether New York, Boston, Houston, anywhere at all you can see my fortune.

Roman Mars:
Including all the fortunes for Panda Express, that’s definitely Steven’s biggest client.

Avery Trufelman:
Steven’s tiny warehouse in San Francisco’s Dogpatch District is filled with boxes, all stuffed full of tiny strips of fortune paper. Each box contains 300,000 paper fortunes.

Steven Yang:
I print a lot of them. I’ve been a lot of them, see.

Roman Mars:
And Steven prints all of these boxes and boxes with only five other employees.

Avery Trufelman:
And Lisa, Steven’s daughter, writes all the fortunes. When I visited, she was away on maternity leave, but she has written most of the company’s 5,000 unique fortunes.

Roman Mars:
This is amazing because when you think about it, fortunes are deceptively difficult to write.

Avery Trufelman:
The messages have to be really, really generic because they could be for anyone. You can’t write messages like, you will meet a tall, dark stranger because an eight-year-old could read that and be like …

Child:
“I don’t want that. Why would we?”

Roman Mars:
And fortunes also have to be careful not to offend.

Avery Trufelman:
Famously, there was once a fortune that said, “Lighten up.” And a lot of customers were like, “Is this cookie calling me fat?”.

Roman Mars:
And of course, no bad predictions. Americans like their fortunes sunny.

Avery Trufelman:
So fortunes tend to be vague or just generally uplifting, like tomorrow will be better, or the fortunes are nabbed from quotation books, just whatever Lisa can find. Steven doesn’t really care. He doesn’t read them.

Steven Yang:
I don’t know why the American people, they like them. They say they will do, when they get a fortune after eating dinner, they will keeping the words. They keep them.

Avery Trufelman:
Yeah, it’s true. Some people do keep the fortunes in their wallets. When I asked around, it turns out a few of my friends do this or can recite their favorite fortunes from memory. And it’s crazy because a lot of these fortunes are Steven’s, written by his daughter, Lisa.

Roman Mars:
But there are a few ways to tell where your fortunes come from. If you get one with blue corners on it, that was printed by a giant company in New York called “Wonton Food”. They make over four million cookies a day and were responsible for the cookie that made all those Powerball winners in 2005.

Avery Trufelman:
If you’re fortunate has smiley faces on it, it was probably printed by a Chinese company for the American market, of course.

Roman Mars:
And if the fortune doesn’t have blue corners or smiley faces, chances are it was one of the many thousands that Steven prints in all different colors and fonts, and sends to factories all over the country, including “The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company” in a tiny alleyway in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Avery Trufelman:
The “Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company” is pretty touristy. It charges visitors 50 cents a photo and doesn’t actually have a very big cookie output. Actually, calling this place a factory is kind of an overstatement. It’s just one narrow room with most of the space taken up by three hulking fortune cookie machines, versions of machines that were invented by Edward Louie.

Ming Louie:
My father used to call his machine like this fourth child. He had three sons and then the fourth was his baby.

Avery Trufelman:
Ming Louie, one of Edward’s three sons, met me at “The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company”.

Roman Mars:
These fortune cookie machines are pretty simple. They flatten round dabs of batter onto a conveyor belt and a worker sits next to this belt and folds the hot cookies around the paper fortunes, one-by-one by hand.

Ming Louie:
And we pick them off as you see them doing here, fold it and put them on a conveyor.

Avery Trufelman:
Ming learned how to fold the cookies when he was around eight years old. The Louie family used to have a fortune cookie company of their own and it was their whole life.

Ming Louie:
Even during dinner, we took shifts. Somebody eats, the other one works. That’s how we did it. And we used to call ourselves the prisoners and that was a famous saying. “Help. I’m a prisoner in this fortune cookie factory.”

Avery Trufelman:
Ming’s father later developed the next generation of fortune cookie machines, a fully automated version, which also folds the cookie. And because of this technology, fortune cookies are widely available and cheap enough that restaurants can give them out for free.

Roman Mars:
No one in the Louie family really questioned where the cookies originated, but it was a mystery that other people tried to solve. People like Sally Osaki, she knew they were not invented in China.

Sally Osaki:
What do you mean the Chinese fortune cookies? It’s Japanese.

Avery Trufelman:
Sally Osaki is California born and raised, but her parents came from Japan in the early 1900s.

Sally Osaki:
When I was a child, the fortunes used to be in Japanese rather than the Chinese character.

Avery Trufelman:
And the cookies weren’t something you’d get at the end of a meal at a restaurant.

Sally Osaki:
They’d come in a bag, and mostly I know when we got them when I was a child was, we would go see Japanese movies.

Avery Trufelman:
So in Sally’s California childhood, the cookies were a casual snack. But if you trace them all the way back to their origins in Japan, you actually find them at a shrine …

Jennifer 8. Lee:
In Kyoto. And if you kind of walk around there, you will be able to find these Japanese bakers grilling fortune cookies.

Roman Mars:
Jennifer flew to the Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine in Kyoto specifically to try them.

Jennifer 8. Lee:
But they’re not like the fortune cookies we see in the United States. They’re like bigger and browner and they’re actually kind of this nutty, savory flavor.

Avery Trufelman:
So they’re more cracker-like, but still, they’re that same iconic fortune cookie shape we all know.

Roman Mars:
There’s actually an old Japanese image of a baker folding these crackers and it dates back to 1878, decades before the first reports of American fortune cookies.

Jennifer 8. Lee:
One of the bakers that I spoke to thought that fortune cookies they designed to look like a bell in part because there are bells all along the paths up into the shrines.

Avery Trufelman:
But then why don’t we eat it after sushi?

Jennifer 8. Lee:
Because people were not eating sushi in like 1920.

Roman Mars:
When Japanese immigrants were opening businesses in the 1920s, there was no market for Japanese food. Again, like the Chinese immigrants before them, they pandered to American tastes.

Jennifer 8. Lee:
So a lot of the Japanese families ran a lot of Chinese restaurants.

Avery Trufelman:
And these Japanese families ran American-Chinese restaurants full of chop suey and other faux-Chinese cuisines, and these Japanese owners would throw in a fortune cookie for dessert.

Roman Mars:
When Sally was a kid, fortune cookies were still made in Japanese bakeries in both LA and San Francisco, and the fortunes were still in Japanese. And then something happened that completely disrupted everything about Japanese-American life in this country.

Sally Osaki:
I don’t know if you know that the Japanese-Americans, 120,000 of us during World War II were sent away to concentration camps. I was nine years old when we got sent to the concentration camps.

Avery Trufelman:
Sally and her family were farmers in Fresno. They were summoned to a train station and sent off to a camp in Arizona.

Sally Osaki:
You had to carry whatever you were taking. I was a child. I mean, I couldn’t carry that much. I carried a small suitcase and I remember my mother took me to a store near our town to buy boots because she heard that where we were going a desert in Arizona, there were rattlesnakes and scorpions.

Avery Trufelman:
Were there?

Sally Osaki:
Oh, there were, yeah. Oh yeah, Gila monsters and scorpions and rattlesnakes. Yeah.

Roman Mars:
In the camp, her parents were given jobs that earned hardly any money.

Sally Osaki:
Top salary was like $16 or $18 a month. A month.

Avery Trufelman:
For four years, from 1942 to 1946, California’s Japanese and Japanese-American community was marooned in the desert, out of sight, out of communication and out of business.

Roman Mars:
Including a lot of Japanese bakers and Japanese restaurant owners.

Sally Osaki:
My recollection was that after we came out of the camps, it was a Chinese fortune cookie. The Chinese actually commercialized it and all the Chinese restaurants started to serve it.

Avery Trufelman:
Thanks to Chinese business owners and later Edward Louie’s fortune cookie machines, the Chinese-American fortune cookie, as we now know it, flourished.

Roman Mars:
It’s nearly impossible to pin the Americanization of the cookie to one specific Japanese-American baker or Chinese-American restaurant. The transfer from Japanese cracker to American-Chinese cookie was a larger phenomenon that occurred more or less across California, and then swept the rest of the United States and then the world, except for China. They still don’t eat fortune cookies.

  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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