The Mystery of the Fortune Cookie

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Oct 11, 2014

“Confucius say: if you think you’re going to sum up your entire life on this little piece of paper, you’re crazy.”
Fortune Cookie Quote

Just about every time Evie and I go out for Chinese food and our meal is over, we are brought our bill and on a small tray are two fortune cookies. At that moment we have a little ritual where we both pretend how important the forthcoming message is going to be, as though our whole future depends on the words inside. 

Before we open them, we each try to decide which one is hers and which one is mine as though there could be huge consequences if we get the wrong one. Once we agree and pause for an occasional melodramatic drumroll, we break them open. We love to read ours to each other because the results almost always make us smile. 

According to legend, the first secret message was sent hundreds of years ago during the Tang Dynasty. A pastry chef was in love with the daughter of the Lotus Queen and slipped her rice-paper love notes in baked wontons. 

Although that is a romantic idea, fortune cookies are actually American, not Chinese. There is some mystery about their origin but the most accepted theory is that they were invented by David Jung. Jung was a Canton native who immigrated to Los Angeles where in 1916 he founded the Hong Kong Noodle Company. 

Around 1918, Jung claimed that he invented the fortune cookie when he handed out baked cookies filled with inspiring passages of Scripture to unemployed men. Unfortunately, the Los Angeles Almanac website admits there is no surviving documentation showing that he was the one who came up with the idea. 

In 1983, a mock trial was held in the San Francisco Court of Historical Review to settle the issue once and for all. It should be noted that the Court had no legal authority even though the presiding Judge was Daniel M. Hanlon, a real-life judge. After reviewing the evidence, to no one’s surprise, he ruled that San Francisco was the birthplace of the fortune cookie, not Los Angeles. But, the Jung family chose to ignore the ruling.

There is nothing particularly nutritious about fortune cookies. They are made of a mixture of rice flour and other ingredients that are squirted onto small griddles to form a little pancake. While it’s still pliable, it’s taken off the grill and folded around a paper fortune.   

Traditionally, it was folded by hand using chopsticks. But in 1968 Edward Louie, owner of the Lotus Fortune Cookie Company in Los Angeles, invented a machine that automatically inserted the fortunes as the cookies are folded. The strips of paper are folded in by a vacuum. 

Each year 3 billion fortune cookies are made and a machine called the Kitamura FCM-8006W can turn out 8,000 in an hour. The Wonton Food, Inc. of Brooklyn, N.Y., is the largest manufacturer of the little treat; 4.5 million of them are made there every day.

China did not have fortune cookies until 1989 when they were sold as “genuine American fortune cookies.” But due to lack of sales you can hardly find them anywhere there. 

More important than the mystery of their origin, however, is the mystery of what is inside of each one. Some pranksters have come up with the “Unfortunate Cookie” and have placed inside such sayings as “This cookie just fell on the ground” and “Is that your car outside?  Just got towed?”   

But the ones we all enjoy are those like, “Don’t wait any longer, book that flight,” and “Now is the time to try something new,” and “Good news will come to you from far away.”  

So next time you pick up those chopsticks to taste Mongolian chicken or sugar donuts or shrimp roll or fried rice, embrace the mystery of the fortune cookie.

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville, Pa. 
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