Where do fortune cookies come from and how did they become so ubiquitous?
It is common in many restaurants for diners to receive a little treat with their check: mints, hard candies, sometimes even chocolate. But at many Chinese restaurants in the United States, customers get something a little different – a Pac-Man-shaped vanilla cookie with a finger-sized piece of paper printed with a fortune or a lapidary aphorism.
While many Americans associate these fortune cookies with Chinese restaurants – and by extension, Chinese culture – they’re actually more easily traceable to 19th-century Japan and 20th-century America.
From Kyoto to California
Already in the 1870s, some confectionery stores near Kyoto, Japan carried a cookie of the same folded shape and fortune tucked away in the bend, instead of its hollow inside. This is called the “tsujiura senbei”, or “fortune cracker”, according to Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Cooking, which traces the history of the cookie.
The Japanese cracker, Lee wrote, was bigger and darker, made with sesame and miso instead of the vanilla and butter used to flavor fortune cookies found in modern Chinese restaurants in America. Lee cited Japanese researcher Yasuko Nakamachi, who said he found these cookies at a multi-generation family bakery near a popular Shinto shrine just outside of Kyoto in the late 1990s. Nakamachi also discovered story books from 1878 with illustrations of an apprentice who worked in a senbei store making tsujiura senbei, as well as other types of crackers.
Lee says the fortune cookie probably arrived in the United States with Japanese immigrants who came to Hawaii and California between the 1880s and early 1900s, after the expulsion of Chinese workers by the Chinese exclusion law. left a demand for cheap labor. Japanese bakers are moving to places like Los Angeles and San Francisco, making miso and sesame crackers, among other things.
One of the most frequently repeated origin stories of the American fortune cookie cites the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park as the first known American restaurant to serve the treat. The Tea Garden sourced its cookies from a local bakery called Benkyodo, which claims to have pioneered the vanilla and butter flavor, and invented a machine around 1911 to mass-produce the cookies. But, Lee says, several other sources also claimed to have invented the cookie around the same time, including three immigrant-run businesses based in Los Angeles: the Fugetsu-Do confectionery in the city’s Little Tokyo, the maker. of Japanese snacks Umeya and Hong Kong Noodle. Business.
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How did fortune cookies migrate from Japanese bakeries to Chinese restaurants? American food preferences probably played a role.
Japanese emigrants to the United States at the turn of the 20th century couldn’t open Japanese restaurants, Lee says, because Americans didn’t want to eat raw fish. “So in a lot of cases they actually opened up Chinese restaurants because they were sort of going through a big renaissance with chop suey, chow mein, egg foo young. And Americans’ wait for dessert at the end of meals, Lee says, may explain why many of these restaurants have started offering fortune cookies with the check.
But the fortune cookie, once produced by Americans of Japanese descent, eventually found its way into the hands of American Chinese manufacturers during World War II. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 and President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the relocation and internment of Japanese Americans through his Executive Order 9066, Japanese American companies began to shut down, y including the bakeries that once made fortune cookies. This gave Chinese-American entrepreneurs the opportunity to produce and sell them.
Over 100 years later, fortune cookies remain a huge business. New York-based Wonton Food, the world’s largest producer of fortune cookies, makes more than 4 million per day, with about 3 billion cookies produced each year, Lee wrote.
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Fortune Cookie Controversy
While fortune cookies have become a staple in Chinese restaurants, they have also become a fodder for ethnic stereotypes.
Despite having historical roots in Japan and becoming a uniquely American business success story, cookies have become an easy shortcut for all things Chinese – along with other demeaning and sometimes derogatory pop culture stereotypes like squinty eyes. , heavy accents, and being good at math. In 2012, for example, MSG Network broadcast a fan sign of New York City Taiwanese American basketball sensation Knick Jeremy Lin, layering his face on top of a broken fortune cookie. That same year, ice cream makers Ben & Jerry’s briefly offered a ‘Taste Lin-sanity’ themed frozen yogurt, complete with broken fortune cookies, before an uproar forced them to publicly apologize. and removing cookies from the recipe.
Using things like fortune cookies and takeout boxes as shortcuts for Chinese culture is misleading, says Lee, given that these are clearly American inventions – and the global reach of American culture helps perpetuate these stereotypes around the world. But despite misconceptions about its true origins and its misuse as a symbol of Chinese heritage, the fortune cookie still has a strong resonance in American culture.
“You have the number of people who got engaged through fortune cookies, you have little baby booties, fortune cookie jewelry,” says Lee. “It really speaks to Americans in a very deep way.”
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