February/March 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 1
It’s a mystery shrouded in an enigma wrapped in a cookie. Today’s prepackaged meal-ending prophecy has Asian antecedents that go back to the thirteenth century, when anti-Mongol rebels in China passed secret messages in cakes. Beginning in the 1870s, Chinese railroad workers in America baked holiday greetings inside biscuits. But the fortune cookie in its present form, with a cheerful prediction or affirmation folded inside a brittle beige carapace carefully prepared to simulate the flavor of Styrofoam, is known to have originated in California early in the twentieth century. The only question is where.
San Francisco is one claimant, though San Francisco has claimed credit for inventing just about every pseudo-ethnic dish, including chop suey, Irish coffee, and cioppino, an Italian seafood stew. The supposed inventor was a gardener named Makoto Hagiwara, who built the famous Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. Around 1907, the story goes, Hagiwara was fired by an anti-Japanese mayor and then rehired after a public outcry. In gratitude, he gave his supporters cookies with thank-you messages inside, inspired by traditional Japanese senbei rice wafers. According to Hagiwara’s great-great-grandson Erik S. Hagiwara-Nagata, a San Francisco landscape architect, “It was developed to suit American tastes by making it sweet.”
Equally confident in its cookie claim is San Francisco’s perennial rival, Los Angeles. In the L.A. version, sometime around 1918 a Chinese immigrant named David Jung, owner of the Hong Kong Noodle Company, began handing out rolled-up pastries containing scriptural passages to unemployed men. Another Los Angeles candidate is Seichi Kito, a Japanese-American baker who put haiku verses inside cookies and sold them to Chinese restaurants. The bakery he founded, Fugetsudo, still stands in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo section, where it is run by Kito’s descendants. The shop recently celebrated its 100th anniversary, and a mold purportedly used to make the original cookies is prominently displayed in its window.
In 1983 the Court of Historical Review—a self-appointed, quasi-judicial organization based in San Francisco—held a trial to decide the question. In a theatrical atmosphere that would have seemed less startling a century earlier, participants wore yellow makeup and Celestial costumes and spoke in pidgin English as they presented the oral history underlying each side’s case. The presiding magistrate, Daniel M. Hanlon (a federal judge in real life), ruled for San Francisco, as expected, but Los Angeles boosters ignored his decision, considering it as legitimate as a Dodgers-Giants game officiated by San Francisco sandlot umpires.
Whatever the fortune cookie’s provenance, it became a staple in America’s Chinese restaurants in the years following World War II. A great leap forward came in 1981 with the introduction of the Fortune HI machine, which automated the entire production process, from mixing the ingredients and baking the dough to inserting the fortune and folding the wafer. A skilled handworker could make about 750 cookies per hour; the new machine could turn out 1,500. Today the nearly 30-foot-long Japanese-made Kitamura FCM-8006W can produce 8,000 per hour. Mass production like this allows the East Coast’s biggest fortune-cookie maker, Wonton Food Inc., of Brooklyn, New York, to ship 60 million cookies a month.
In the wake of its mainstreaming and subsequent industrialization, the fortune cookie has been pressed into service as an advertising medium. In 2001 Wonton Food began selling ad space on the back of its fortunes and baking cookies with custom-written messages inside. This practice, too, turns out to have historical antecedents. In 1960 a New York City Council candidate handed out fortune cookies that contained campaign pitches, and the director Billy Wilder had 20,000 promotional cookies made for his 1966 film The Fortune Cookie .
Also in the 1960s, Lotus Fortune Cookies, of San Francisco, was hired to make cookies with fortunes soliciting ideas for a new Pepsodent toothpaste jingle. Today the company specializes in custom-made fortune cookies for trade shows, weddings, and other events. Customers are invited to compose their own messages. As Greg Louie, owner of Lotus Fortune Cookies, says, “You write ‘em, you read ‘em, you eat ‘em.”