Fortune Cookies Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Fortune Cookies

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Updated in September 2021

The original Edited Guide (1999 Edition) had this to say about fortune cookies:

Essentially they are nothing more than a stale biscuit inside which resides a small slip of paper upon which is, ostensibly, the answer to life's great mysteries. They contain words of hope, such as 'A great opportunity will come your way', or of wisdom 'As a dog returns to its vomit, so does a fool return to folly', and of faith: 'You think you've got it bad?'

None of it is terribly enlightening, nor do the fortunes ever come true, which leads many people to think that they got the wrong cookie by mistake. But surely that would mean fate itself made a gaffe, which would deny the whole principle of predicting the future, which would annul any value of the fortune cookie in the first place.

It is best not to think about it too hard.

We've done a bit more thinking in the last two decades. Here is some more actual information about fortune cookies.

Origins?

According to the Library of Congress, there are three main origin stories for the fortune cookie, all equally plausible, charming, and unprovable. The first is that during the Mongol invasion, Chinese freedom fighters passed coded messages hidden in 'moon cakes'. Another version credits a Japanese custom of stuffing rice cakes at a shrine with hidden fortunes. The third story follows Chinese immigrants to North America, where railway workers baked holiday wishes into their pastries. Take your choice.

There is much argument about whether China, Japan, or the US should get credit for inventing the fortune cookie. One claimant to the title of fortune cookie originator is Suyeichi Okamura, who in 1906 supplied San Francisco with fortune cookies from his shop, Benkyodo. Several of his fortune cookie moulds are preserved in the Smithsonian Institution. According to Noriko Sanefuji of the National Museum of American History, Chinese importers only entered the fortune cookie market because of the Second World War. The internment of Japanese American businessmen created a market opportunity.

Suyeichi Okamura created moulds specifically for Makoto Hagiwara, the proprietor of the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco. For that reason, many people give Hagiwara the title of originator of fortune cookies. But Los Angeles has also laid claim to the title: in 1914, Chinese American David Tsung of the Hong Kong Noodle Company stuffed his cookies with Bible verses and gave them to unemployed men. The debate was passionate enough to end up in the Court of Historical Review in 1983.

The Court of Historical Review is a mock court in San Francisco that decides historical quibbles. In 1983, a not-terribly-serious 'case' involved the origin of the fortune cookie. The San Francisco court ruled in favour of San Francisco, a move that was rejected by Los Angeles.

How Are Fortune Cookies Made?

A fortune cookie consists of a crisp, thin cookie in the form of a circle which has been folded over and pinched in the middle. When broken open, the cookie reveals a hidden message on a slip of paper. (The paper is not edible.)

How do the little messages get inside the cookies? They're laid on the hot cookie circles while the pastry is still warm. Originally, the cookies were then folded (quickly) using chopsticks. The cookies cool and harden around the slips of paper. Since 1980, fortune cookies have been made by a fully automated process in which the fortunes are sucked into place by vacuums while the cookie is folded. The Kitamura FCM-8006W can fold 8,000 cookies per hour.

How Accurate Are Fortune Cookies?

In spite of massive anecdotal evidence from that extremely perspicacious source, the Internet, there is no scientific evidence that fortune cookies are reliable oracles. On the other hand, it is possible to receive highly accurate personalised messages at the end of your Chinese meal – or even a marriage proposal. In that case, you can be sure that your loved ones have purchased these made-to-order fortunes from a specialty company. Technology moves on, but fortune-telling customs endure. No matter where they came from.


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