This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, The Fortune Cookie Quest, first released on February 8, 2022. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
PETER SAGAL: We have asked you here to play a game, that this time we’re calling…
KARL KASSEL: C is for cookie.
CYNTHIA GRABER: Yay, today Gastropod is still on hiatus and instead we’re going to play “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me!”
NICOLA TWILLEY: That actually sounds like a fabulous plan and I would definitely enjoy it. But Cynthia, you know that’s not what’s happening. That said, why not just listen to a little bit more? I like cookies.
SAGAL: One of the most famous cookie people around is Wally Amos, better known as Famous Amos. You’ve seen his cookies?
LEE DANIELS: Yes.
SAGAL: What is Famous Amos’ other claim to fame? Was it: A, As a talent agent he discovered Simon and Garfunkel. B, He set and still holds the world record for number of cigarettes smoked at once. Or C, he happens to be a champion Morris dancer.
SAGAL: You’re going to go for A, is a talent agent who discovered Simon and Garfunkel?
SAGAL: Yes, you’re right. That’s what he did.
DANIELS: Holy cow. Unbelievable.
GRABER: First, that story is totally wild, AND, now we can reveal that Gastropod is making an episode about one of my all-time favorite duos. The only one where I can sing quite possibly every single song they ever sang together, word for word!
TWILLEY: Which is something I never knew about you, and which is very exciting, because I too know every word of every Simon & Garfunkel song ever recorded
GRABER: Somehow, Nicky, it never even occurred to me to ask, because you’re a Brit who doesn’t have ‘70s activist American parents like I did. I never imagined we could possibly share this.
TWILLEY: But I grew up in suburban London on country music and Simon & Garfunkel. Don’t ask me to explain.
TWILLEY: But hey, if we ever get to take a Gastropod road trip again, the soundtrack is sorted. Honestly, I don’t know which is more astonishing, that Simon & Garfunkel were discovered by Famous Amos, or that you and I both know all the lyrics to the entire Simon & Garfunkel oeuvre and we never realized.
GRABER: But unfortunately this episode is not about either of those truly shocking facts. So let’s just head back to “Wait Wait.”
SAGAL: Fortune — you can see if you get go for perfect here, why not? Everything else is perfect.
DANIELS: No! Oh God.
SAGAL: Come on, come on. Fortune cookies don’t get a lot of attention. Because they’re free, they taste like sweetened cardboard. But on occasion — on one occasion —
DANIELS: Oh man.
SAGAL: — a fortune cookie changed lives. How? A, a desperate message inside a cookie led to the freeing of fifty imprisoned fortune cookie factory workers. B, a fortune cookie typo introduced the phrase “on fleek” to the language, or C, a fortune cookie correctly predicted Powerball numbers, leading to a hundred and ten people winning a hundred thousand dollars each.
DANIELS: I say C.
SAGAL: You say C, you’re right again.
TWILLEY: This truly happened, and, yes, you guessed it, D, this episode is truly all about everything fortune cookie.
GRABER: But just in case you’re wondering, this is actually Gastropod, not “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me,” and I am Cynthia Graber.
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And it’s still kind of the new year in my mind, and anyway it’s definitely the Chinese New Year, and what better time for some good fortune, in cookie form?
GRABER: I, like many Americans who grew up eating out frequently at Chinese restaurants, I enjoyed quite a number of fortune cookies. But I never see them sold downtown for Chinese New Year — so are these cookies also enjoyed in China? Are they really Chinese?
TWILLEY: Also, who writes all those fortunes? Do they actually know the Powerball numbers ahead of time?
GRABER: All that, plus Freaky Friday, Dennis the Menace, and The Simpsons.
TWILLEY: Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network in partnership with Eater.
CRACKLING, DROPPING SOUNDS
GRABER: On a recent reporting trip to San Francisco, Nicky and I visited one of the country’s oldest still operating fortune cookie factories. It’s on a little side street in Chinatown, and the factory is only about the size of a small corner store, like a bodega.
TWILLEY: As soon as you step off the street, you are in the middle of cookie madness. There’s a whole production line, with machines mixing cookie batter and other machines piping out thin flat circles of that batter like crepes.
GRABER: Ooh, the batter is being mixed!
GRABER: Those thin cookie discs go into an oven, and as soon as they come out, while they’re still soft and malleable, a couple of older Chinese women pick them up with their bare hands and quickly fold the cookie disc around a small piece of paper.
GRABER: You need just the right malleability.
TWILLEY: It is totally mesmerizing watching what she’s doing. Look at that.
GRABER: Very smooth.
TWILLEY: I sense that if I did that, it would not turn out the same way.
GRABER: There’s no way.
KEVIN CHAN: Yeah, everything is, it looks really simple, but everything is, is a mystery. You know, when the thing come out, it takes four seconds. If you don’t get it done then it’s destroyed. o now she, once she opens up, and she had to fold it right away, within four seconds. Four seconds the key to get it done.
TWILLEY: This is Kevin Chang, he’s the owner of the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. It’s been in his family for decades.
CHANG: Our recipe is unique. You don’t get the recipe outside. My mom created that recipe for 59 years.
GRABER: Visiting one of the country’s oldest fortune cookie factories was fun, but it didn’t answer my question, which is really, where do fortune cookies come from? So for that, we turned to someone who’s been on the show before.
JENNY 8 LEE: So fortune cookies are confectionery that are most famed in the United States, they are yellow and shaped like Pacman
LEE : The ones that are most you know, sort of the canonical fortune cookie is vanilla and butter flavored, yellow cookie, that’s sort of like, originally grilled as a circle, and then like folded and then folded again, with a piece of paper inside.
GRABER: That’s Jenny 8. Lee and she wrote an entire book called The Fortune Cookie Chronicles.
LEE: And they are associated with Chinese restaurants, which is the main place of distributing them. They are made now in America in huge volumes.
TWILLEY: Jenny, who is Chinese American, grew up eating fortune cookies, like basically every other American.
LEE: I don’t know that we ate them, because they’re actually not that yummy tasting. So I think, you know, if you’re — I use them, I use fortune cookies, I consume them.
LEE: But they were kind of mostly just a vessel to bring that little tweet (LAUGHS) into my life.
LEE: But yeah, they were definitely a huge part of growing up Chinese American in New York City.
GRABER: Jenny just assumed that because these cookies came only with Chinese food that they were of course Chinese.
LEE: And then it was only when I was like, in seventh grade or so that I read a book called The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan where I learned fortune cookies weren’t Chinese. And I was like, what?
LEE: And it was like learning there was no Santa Claus and Easter Bunny, or Tooth Fairy like all at once. I mean, it just, like, kind of shook your foundation of, like, what the world was.
GRABER: In the book The Joy Luck Club, which is a book I read a long time ago and quite enjoyed, a couple of Chinese immigrant women get a job in a fortune cookie factory and they are quite amused by this strange thing that isn’t Chinese at all.
TWILLEY: So if a fortune cookie isn’t a traditional Chinese dessert, what actually is?
LEE: I mean, basically, they used to serve like orange slices. That’s actually what real Chinese restaurants serve for Chinese people. The dessert is like fruit, and like melon or orange. It was not fortune cookies.
LEE: Another common dessert would be like red bean soup, or like red bean soup with tapioca. Or like green bean soup.
TWILLEY: Not my idea of a good time, I’ll be honest.
GRABER: Not mine either. And Jenny agrees.
LEE: Historically, Chinese desserts, not great, right? Like, you know, they were really into the moon cake, which, like, looks and tastes like a hockey puck.
LEE: I mean, I really, like, appreciate the cultural significance, the holiday, you know. But they’re terrible. I mean moon cakes are like really, really just terrible desserts.
GRABER: Jenny told us that desserts in general taste good because of sugar and fat, and Chinese desserts typically have very little of either one. And then on top of that, the Chinese didn’t historically use ovens because there wasn’t a lot of wood to heat ovens, we talked about this in our oven episode. But the result is, not a big dessert culture.
TWILLEY: So Jenny wondered: if fortune cookies are not a traditional Chinese dessert, then where are they from? And how did they become so popular at American Chinese restaurants?
GRABER: Jenny had spent quite a while with this question kind of floating around her mind, she was thinking about how popular Chinese restaurants were in America, and why they all handed out this strange little oracle at the end of the meal—
LEE: And then as part of that journey, you know, there was this, this event that happened where a hundred and ten people — a surprising number came in second in a Powerball lottery in 2005.
TWILLEY: This is the story behind that “Wait Wait” question — all these people won second prize in the Powerball drawing. Which means one hundred and ten people, each of them taking home somewhere between a hundred thousand and five hundred thousand dollars!
LEE: And, you know, statistically based on the number of tickets that were sold, it should have been like three or four, you know, and it really stunned the organizers of the lottery, they’re like, is this a scam? Is there fraud? Did someone collude? You know, is there a leak?
TWILLEY: The organizers were confused. How did so many people have an identical number that was prize winning?
LEE They asked, you know, the first person: “So, where’d you get your number from?” You know, and they had been thinking, like, maybe it was like, from a TV show. Like, Lost, they looked at The Young And Restless, which was, had plotlines that involved, you know, winning lottery numbers, and people will often use those kinds of numbers, and it wasn’t that.
LEE: And it wasn’t until the people started coming in that you know, they said, like , oh, you know, it’s from a fortune cookie. And the second person was like, Oh, I got it from a fortune cookie. And the third person was like, I also got it from a fortune cookie.
LEE: And the person in Tennessee actually still had that, like, little slip of paper with the fortune cookie numbers in their wallet.
TWILLEY: It turns out that choosing your lottery numbers based on a fortune cookie’s lucky numbers is not actually super rare. And every so often, people win, thanks to their cookie.
NEWSCASTER: Sixty-six year old Charles Jackson of North Carolina came forward yesterday to claim the prize from Saturday night’s Powerball jackpot worth more than three hundred forty four million bucks.
NEWSCASTER: He’s a retired retail worker. He chose the cash option, which will land him about two hundred thirty three million dollars. He said he has been playing the same lottery numbers for years, which he actually got off of a fortune cookie that his granddaughter had at a Vietnamese restaurant—
NEWSCASTER 2: Wow.
NEWSCASTER: —years ago. So that strategy worked.
LOTTERY SPOKESPERSON: Congratulations, Emma Duvoll, on her two million dollar win.
NEWSCASTER 3: Yes, two million dollars.
NEWSCASTER 4: Not bad.
NEWSCASTER 3: She’s digging it. That was February in a Powerball drawing. Well, it turns out after years of playing birthdays, anniversaries, you know, trying to pick her own numbers, it wasn’t working out. She tried a lucky lotto number from a fortune cookie —
NEWSCASTER 4: And that was it.
NEWSCASTER 3: —those things at the bottom.
NEWSCASTER 4: And that did it.
NEWSCASTER 3: There it was. Two million bucks.
NEWSCASTER 4: We’re going to Chinatown after this.
GRABER: So apparently it’s not super unusual to win based on your fortune cookie, but what was kind of shocking in 2005 was just how many people at how many different restaurants all around the country had the same number. Jenny decided to visit all those restaurants and talk to the people who ate there.
LEE: And it was just so interesting, because you would talk to them and, you know, the stories were, like, different but they were the same. Like it was lunch, it was dinner, it was takeout, it was sit down, it was delivery, it was with friends, it was with family, it was last week, it was a month ago, it was three months ago.
LEE: But they all had a thing in common, which it all came down to, like Chinese food and all came down to a fortune cookie. So that sort of, like, unified them.
LEE: And it just kind of gave me a sense of just how American fortune cookies were.
TWILLEY: At this point, Jenny began to realize she had a project on her hands. Specifically a book and then a movie that teased out all the stories behind these truly American Chinese foods and how much a part of American life they are.
(THE SEARCH FOR GENERAL TSO SOUND)
WOMAN: I’m from a small town in Montana, remember going to neon, white take-out boxes with fortune cookies.
WOMAN 2: We had a favorite Chinese restaurant, and it was called… Wai Wai? W-A-I– And it was about, what a mile from the house?
MAN: Not even.
WOMAN 2: We were there a lot, they had the best Chinese buffet you ever had.
WOMAN 3: Mom doesn’t want to cook, let’s call in for chinese. It’s fast, it’s easy, and you don’t even have to do any dishes. ‘Cause everything is right there for you. They even throw in the plastic forks.
GRABER: That’s from the movie The Search for General Tso, and in the movie, and in our episode the United States of Chinese Food, Jenny explores the origin of dishes like chop suey and general Tso’s chicken, and of course fortune cookies.
TWILLEY: Spoiler, all of these things turn out to be basically as American as apple pie. Fortune cookies have been so popular in America for so long that they show up in golden oldies — there’s a whole movie called The Fortune Cookie directed by the famous Hollywood director Billy Wilder in the 1960s.
GRABER: And fortune cookies show up in the classic early ’60s TV show Dennis the Menace.
DENNIS: Say mom, is it all right if I invite a little friend in to have a fortune cookie too?
DENNIS’ MOM: Well, of course you could, dear, but I’m afraid there aren’t any left.
MR. WILSON: Oh well, Alice, do me a favor and let Dennis’s friend have mine.
DENNIS: Jeepers, thanks Mr Wilson. It’s alright. You can come on in and have a fortune cookie too, Tiny.
TWILLEY: Turns out Dennis’s friend is a very cute puppy called Tiny
DENNIS: Here, Tiny. Hey, not the whole cookie. This is your fortune.
WILSON: Well, what does it say.
DENNIS: Beware you are about to lead a dog’s life. Jeepers, Mr. Wilson, this fortune cookie must be meant for you. LAUGHTER
GRABER: Oh for those glory black and white, mom-in-apron days of Dennis the menace. That rascally dog Tiny ate the fortune.
TWILLEY: Such jolly japes!
GRABER: The fortune cookie has made more modern appearances as well. It’s shown up in episodes of Star Trek and The Smurfs, and The Simpsons —
CARL: What’s your fortune say?
LENNY: “You will enjoy the company of others.” Wow. That’s exactly what I’m enjoying right now. Spooky.
SNAP OF COOKIE BREAKING
HOMER: Today is your lucky day. Yeah. Pfft.
CARL: Hey Homer, if I was you, I wouldn’t be so quick to say, pfft.
LENNY: If it’s your lucky day, you’d be a fool not to take advantage of it.
HOMER: Eh, any part of a cookie you can’t eat is just a waste of time. Aaah!
TWILLEY: Oh em gee. You are never going to believe what happens next? Homer slips, falls, hits a vending machine, and all the chocolate bars and Twizzlers and Doritos fall out on top of him!
LENNY: What incredible good luck.
CARL: Just as the cookie foretold.
GRABER: If that’s not enough, the modern version of Freaky Friday, where the mom and daughter switch bodies, it happens because of a magic fortune cookie.
ANNA: You could just cut me some slack, just this once, mom!
MOM: No, I am beyond cutting you slack, Anna! But you are not going to the audition.
ANNA: Yes I am!
MOM: No, you’re not!
ANNA: Why not?!
MOM: Because I said so!
TWILLEY: So, not to labor the point, but I think we’ve established that fortune cookies are integral to the highest products of American culture and civilization. But we still haven’t figured out where and when they were actually invented!
GRABER: That’s coming up after the break.
TWILLEY: Jenny’s early research showed that by the 1950s, after World War 2, the fortune cookie was everywhere. So she figured she had to look even earlier to find out where it came from. And the first thing she found was a legal case.
LEE: There was a — a sort of fake trial that took place in San Francisco, that pitted Los Angeles to San Francisco as the original, you know, home of the fortune cookie.
GRABER: This was not a real trial, of course, it took place in the 1980s at this thing called the Court of Historical Review in San Francisco. They had representatives from both sides, the los angeles side and the san francisco side, and both sides argued why their city was the original home of the fortune cookie, back before World War II.
LEE: And they both had myths, you know, or local lore about how fortune cookies were introduced in the United States. You know, there’s one story out of the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, there’s one out of Los Angeles, and bakeries there.
TWILLEY: Regular listeners will know that I live in Los Angeles, so I’m sort of biased. It’s one hundred percent of a better city than San Francisco, so why wouldn’t we have invented the fortune cookie too?
GRABER: All you San Francisco people listening, ignore what Nicky just said, your city is lovely too. But anyway, the Los Angeles claim centers around a guy named David Jung, who was a Chinese immigrant from Canton. He was the founder of the Hong Kong Noodle Company in LA before World War I.
TWILLEY: David’s son, George, told the court that the idea for putting a fortune inside a cookie originally came from a traditional game supposedly played by aristocrats in China. The way this game went, you would be given writing implements and a sort of twisted cake that contained a writing prompt, and then you were expected to make up a wise little story to share.
GRABER: Jenny said another story printed in the New York Times and used at the trial, it said that David had created these cookies with little fortunes inside to cheer up downtrodden men on the streets of Los Angeles, and the messages had been written by a minister.
TWILLEY: But the San Francisco side wasn’t having any of this. They came with receipts. And they claimed that the fortune cookie wasn’t Chinese in origin at all. Dun dun da dun.
GRABER: The San Francisco side was led by a city employee named Sally Osaki, and she said that fortune cookies got their start at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park before World War I, and they were introduced by a Japanese immigrant named Makoto Hagiwara. And Sally pulled out a couple of round black iron grills, like round waffle irons, to prove it. The original fortune cookies were cooked on these types of grills.
TWILLEY: And the judge ruled in favor of San Francisco. Which is totally unfair because later an even older Japanese bakery in LA, one which is still around today — they also found their old traditional cookie grilling tools. So I declare this a mistrial.
GRABER: It’s still not clear whether the cookies originated in Los Angeles or in San Francisco, but one thing IS clear — the stories of a Chinese origin in either city were definitely wrong.
LEE: It was easy and quick to recognize that those were not the origin of the fortune cookie, and that — and definitely had some kind of Japanese connection to it.
GRABER: After all, in both cities, Japanese bakeries were where those cookies were originally made.
TWILLEY: So the challenge facing Jenny was to tease out exactly what that Japanese connection was. Because it’s not like everybody in Japan is like: fortune cookies — we know them! We love them! So, were fortune cookies from Japan and just got forgotten there? Or did they just get invented by Japanese Americans? Or what? The mystery deepened…
GRABER: And then came the big breakthrough. One of Jenny’s sources — he’s actually a descendent of one of the owners of one of the original Japanese bakeries in San Francisco making fortune cookies — he told her that a Japanese researcher had come poking around and asking questions about fortune cookies. She showed him a wood-block print that looked like a man cooking fortune cookies over a fire, and the print was from 1878 in Japan. This is decades before any of the American claims.
LEE: And so, it is a — individual who looks like a baker, he’s in a kimono, and he has those little round like griddles with long, long handles, and you can see like their little round thingies. Not to the degree where you can actually tell that they are fortune cookie shaped.
TWILLEY: But still — it seemed like a clue. And so Jenny followed it all the way back to its source. She tracked down this researcher. Her name is Yasuko Nakamachi and she studies Japanese confectionery.
GRABER: Yasuko had first noticed fortune cookies on a trip to New York — like everyone else, she thought they were Chinese. But a few years later, back in Japan, she was doing some research, as per usual, and she found a reference in a book to Japanese cookies that were folded around little pieces of paper. Those seemed to her to be suspiciously like a fortune cookie.
TWILLEY: These Japanese cookies were supposedly a regional speciality, and so Yasuko decided to travel to the small town mentioned in the book. And, lo and behold, bakers in this town were still making these kind of cookies for New Year.
TWILLEY: Then, as Yasuko dug deeper, she realized that these kinds of cookies were mentioned in a few different places — in Japanese literature and historical records. An American is even quoted in one of these, back in 1883 — he described these cookies as being crisp and quote tasting like ginger snaps without the ginger.
GRABER: I’m not sure what that even means. But Yasuko looked, and looked, and then found the final smoking gun. That’s when she found one of the few remaining copies of a book that had the 1878 print, the one with the guy grilling the cookies. A label on the drawing said they were called tsu-ji-ura senbei. This means bell cracker. In other areas they were called a different name that translates to fortune crackers.
TWILLEY: Jenny traveled to Japan to meet up with Yasuko and they went on an expedition to a shrine in a town outside Kyoto where Yasuko said they could see these Japanese fortune crackers being made.
LEE: Where there is a whole series of little mom-and-pop, like, hand bakeries outside a big temple, where they’re still making fortune cookie-like things and with the grills. And it’s kind of funky, because they’re not, like, little and yellow, like the ones that we have in United States, they’re big and brown. And they’re like — they kind of have a soy and miso flavor to them. So they’re a little bit more savory.
LEE: You grill them, and then sometimes you roll them up. And so they become, you know, like a distant cousin of a fortune cookie.
LEE: So like, if you see it, it’s like the DNA, you know, if you take like your ancestry.com, or your like 23andme thing, and you’re like, “Oh my God, here are all the relatives I did not know I had!” That is what it kind of looked like when we went back.
GRABER: And these miso-flavored, folded, Japanese crispy crackers did in fact have a piece of paper inside.
LEE: The piece of paper is not inside Pacman’s body. It’s, like, in his mouth, like, he’s like eating — or like holding on to it with his mouth.
LEE: And what was interesting is that they tended not to be like fortunes as we think of as fortunes. They were, like, pieces of poetry or maybe like a song lyric or, you know, they were just — pretty prose, right? But they’re not making Oracle-like predictions about, like, your future.
TWILLEY: These Japanese cookies are savory, and they’re bigger. And then the fortunes are sort of wedged in the claws of the cookie, not inside it and they’re more poetic than predictive.
TWILLEY: Still, Jenny and Yasuko are convinced that these are definitely the ancestral origins of the fortune cookie — the inspiration for the yellow PacMan American version we know and love. Or, at least, expect. Which means we can conclusively conclude that the fortune cookie has its roots in Japan originally, not China.
GRABER: But then so how did the fortune cookie become Chinese — or really, much more specifically, how did it become a specialty in American-Chinese restaurants?
LEE: What happened is, you know, back in the day, people weren’t eating sushi or raw fish in America. I mean, this is where, you know, salt was like the very exciting spice of the day.
LEE: So Japanese people were not running Japanese restaurants. They ran Chinese restaurants. Because at that point, Chop Suey is very popular.
LEE: And so the Japanese restaurants needed desserts because Americans expect dessert. And they — started serving a Japanese confectionery, which is the fortunes cookies to their Chinese restaurant patrons.
GRABER: So that’s how Japanese Americans made little cookies that were sold in Chinese restaurants on the West Coast. But this still doesn’t explain why these came to be thought of as really a Chinese-American invention, and how they became so famous all around the country. That story, coming up after the break.
TWILLEY: OK, so one part of the story of how fortune cookies came to be in Chinese restaurants in America is because in the early 1900s, Japanese restaurateurs were serving Chinese food. But the other part — how they became one hundred percent Chinese-American — is to do with a not very pleasant part of American history, during the Second World War.
LEE: Because of the Japanese internment, you know. Under an order, executive order, by — signed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who, you know, is still considered one of our great presidents. But this is definitely a blemish on his record.
LEE: You know, they basically rounded up anyone who was of Japanese descent within 60 miles of the coast.
MILTON S. EISENHOWER: When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, our West Coast became a potential combat zone. Living in that zone were more than one hundred thousand persons of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of them American citizens, one-third aliens.
EISENHOWER: We know that some among them were potentially dangerous, most were loyal. But no one knew what would happen among this concentrated population if Japanese forces should try to invade our shores. Military authorities therefore determined that all of them, citizens and aliens alike, would have to move.
GRABER: “Have to move.” That’s one way to phrase it. This is from a 1943 propaganda movie made by the US Office of War Information.
EISENHOWER: In small towns, as well as large, up and down the coast, the moving continued. Behind them, they left shops and homes they had occupied for many years.
TWILLEY: Around one hundred and twenty thousand Japanese men, women, and children, many of them American citizens, were moved into internment camps. They were only allowed to bring what they could carry, and most of them lost everything — their possessions, their businesses, their land.
GRABER: Back in the cities, Japanese-Americans weren’t the only ones who had been running Chinese restaurants, Chinese immigrants were too. And they had also started to serve fortune cookies. And so they bought Japanese cookie grills or took over Japanese fortune cookie businesses from Japanese-Americans who were now in internment camps.
TWILLEY: By the time the war was over, the fortune cookie business was solidly Chinese-American, and they had really made it their own.
LEE: They started making them, and they started making them at scale
TWILLEY: Jenny told us that Chinese inventors started tinkering with the traditional cookie making process, trying to make it cheaper and quicker.
LEE: Instead of making them very bespoke on these, like hand grills, you started seeing these machines. These automated, fortune cookie, custom Rube Goldberg-like devices start, like, churning out like little yellow circles, and then you had a human at the other end that needed to fold them.
GRABER: This is exactly what we saw at Golden Gate in San Francisco — there was a conveyor belt running through the machine, the machine was dolloping out these perfect round thin discs of batter. Kevin’s machine is more than 50 years old, and it’s still running.
TWILLEY: But the folding and putting in the fortune, that’s all still done by hand. Which Kevin said slows things down.
CHAN: We are the old school way. The original way.
GRABER: The big breakthrough did actually come from a Chinese immigrant. He invented a machine that he introduced in 1967, and the machine could take the place of the women. It could slip in the paper as the cookie was being folded over. Working by hand, one woman might be able to fold a thousand cookies an hour, the best machines today can do six thousand an hour and so businesses can easily scale up to more than a million cookies a day — Kevin can only make ten thousand.
TWILLEY: This mechanization is part of what made fortune cookies cheap enough to give away at Chinese restaurants across America.
LEE: So there’s a lot of consolidation, with the dominant player being Wonton Food, cause they just had scale and so could make them cheaper and so they could just sell them for cheaper.
TWILLEY: By making fortune cookies so cheap and so ubiquitous, Chinese-Americans had made fortune cookies American. They are as everyday and as unremarkable as ice in soda and endless coffee refills.
LEE: Americans expect them. But they’re almost like a commodity, right? ‘Cause it’s not like people are like, “Ooh, this place has much yummier fortune cookies. So I’m gonna go there.”
GRABER: But fortune cookies aren’t ubiquitous just because they’re cheap and restaurants could hand them out. They became so iconic because Chinese restaurants became super popular. That’s the story we tell in the United States of Chinese Food, and again, you should check it out, but the end result is, fortune cookies really took off after the second World War.
LEE: The extent that fortune cookies, like literally caught fire as a culinary phenomenon, post World War Two is astounding, to the point, like, they were used in presidential campaigns in 1960.
TWILLEY: Two Democratic candidates to be specific, who filled them with campaign messages and gave them out at the Democratic convention. But neither of them became president. Not such good fortune in their cookies.
GRABER: As the fortune cookie business grew, the little crispy treats were so cheap to make that the cookies actually became something Chinese-American noodle companies started to make and give away for free to restaurants, to get their business. The news and weather guy Al Roker visited one of those noodle factories in Brooklyn.
AL ROKER: An estimated ninety percent of the world’s fortune cookies are made by Wonton, the factory cranking out more than four million cookies a day. That adds up to one point six billion fortune cookies a year.
TWILLEY: So the thing that happens when ninety percent of your fortune cookies are made in one factory in Brooklyn is that when you print lucky numbers and, by coincidence, they match the Powerball, you can create a hundred-plus winners at a time. As Jenny discovered.
GRABER: But it also means that the people who write the fortunes inside can get a little burned out.
DONALD LAU: Well, I’m getting, uh, writer’s block more often, so that’s why James will be helping out and he’ll be taking over the responsibility.
TWILLEY: This is Donald Lau, the CFO of Wonton Foods. He’s talking to KMET, a radio station in San Bernadino.
LAU: When we bought the factory, back in the mid eighties, we decided to update the fortunes. And since my English was the best among the group, I was given the job.
LAU: I guess I got the job by default. Writing fortunes was never, uh, part of my career projection.
GRABER: Over the course of Donald’s career, fortunes have certainly changed.
LAU: Well in the old days all the fortunes were the horoscope type of fortune: you will do this and this, you will meet that person. You will find love, things like that. But over time, we introduced some Chinese philosophy and humor into the fortune cookies.
TWILLEY: Kevin Chang at Golden Gate in San Francisco told us he has five thousand pre-written fortunes that he rotates.
CHAN: So we have two types of fortune. One is the regular one that, accepted by normal people. The other ones, my semi not normal because they’re adult ones, they’re funny — jokes. But they’re not offensive, but they’re, they’re just jokes.
CHAN: How about I start one, the regular one for you? Just one. Okay. That’s easy to see this one. The back one has number on it. People use that for lottery numbers. “You will win success in whatever you attempt.” That’s motivating.
GRABER: Sure. Kevin also has some risqué ones that are for the specialty adult cookies, and those we’ll leave to your imagination. But he did tell us that in the normal cookies, he has to be careful not to offend anyone.
TWILLEY: At Wonton Foods, James Wong, the IT guy, recently took over from Donald, and he told KMET that even the most harmless seeming fortune can be taken the wrong way.
JAMES WONG: It was apparently read by someone that is having trouble with the marriage. The husband is about to go off on a business trip. He was in a Chinese restaurant with his wife and got his fortune cookie. The message read: “Romance is in the air on your next trip.”
WONG: The wife got very upset and decided that it’s our fault.
GRABER: Lawsuits from jealous spouses aside, in theory, writing fortunes sounds like an easy job, but it was often too hard for the cookie company bakers and professionals to do themselves, so they hired out. Jenny says in the 1970s, the main fortune teller was a twenty-something Mexican-American named Faustino Corona.
TWILLEY: There’s who’s writing them, and then there’s what they say. Jenny told us that in the 50s and 60s, fortune cookies often shared a little ancient wisdom. Many of them started with “Confucius says.” Although, Confucius didn’t actually say ninety-nine percent of the things on the fortunes.
GRABER: By the time Donald came along, fortunes had become actual fortunes. Something was going to happen to you, maybe something soon. And it was always something good.
LEE: Because, you know, fortune cookies are part of a service industry. So if, like, someone gets a bad fortune, they’re angry at the restaurant, they get bad tips, the restaurant complains to the distributor, the distributor complains to the factory, the factory complains to the people that write the fortunes.
LEE: So fortunes have just been, like, wiped clean of any negative connotation, right? And — and generally, they have to be very general-use purpose.
LEE: Like if there’s a dark and handsome man in your future, it means something different to a 26 year old versus, like, a six year old, right? So, you have to be very careful to make these things much more applicable.
TWILLEY: So eventually, to please the largest number of Americans, fortunes basically turned into Hallmark cards. Like this one that Jenny saved from a recent meal.
LEE: “Make decisions from the heart and use your head to make it work out.” Which I really liked, it’s sort of like follow your passion and, just, figure it out later.
GRABER: Jenny loves that particular fortune — she kept this one on the back of her phone. And she told us that getting a fortune, not necessarily from a cookie, it’s actually pretty common in Asia. But unlike in America, it does not always have good news.
LEE: Honestly, like half of them are negative, right? And like, “your health is going to suffer” — and that’s okay, because like life is, some ups, some downs.
TWILLEY: But that is not the American way. It’s all about relentless positivity here. Which brings us to my favorite fortune cookie quiz.
CHRIS CILLIZZA: Is this a Booker tweet, or fortune cookie?
GRABER: This was a Washington post quiz and a Washington post video, because apparently Senator Cory Booker’s twitter feed is full of heartfelt truisms. So, here goes, is it Cory or is it a cookie?
CILLIZZA: OK, here’s the first one. Those who mistake kindness for weakness reveal that they themselves are weak.
CILLIZZA: Booker, or fortune cookie?
CILLIZZA: It’s Cory Booker! From November 17th, and it got nearly three hundred retweets.
CILLIZZA: OK, next one. Judge each day not by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant. Booker or fortune cookie?
GRABER: That sounds like it could be Booker, but in fact it’s a fortune cookie.
TWILLEY: I guess the moral is, fortune cookies for president? I mean they could not be more American.
GRABER: It’s true, even though they’re originally Japanese and you get them at Chinese restaurants. They come from a mix and adaptation of different immigrant cultures, like a lot of things we consider super American.
LEE: So as I like to say, you know, fortune cookies, invented by the Japanese, popularized by the Chinese, but ultimately consumed by Americans.
LEE: And like, Americans love fortune cookies, right? They have like chocolate fortune cookies, rainbow fortune cookies, like Hanukkah fortune cookies, there’s like fortune cookies for dogs.
GRABER: I do have quite a soft spot for fortune cookies. The normal ones, not the Chanukah versions. So my partner Tim and I recently got some Chinese take out, and I stole his fortune cookie, too, so I have two right here to crack open. Double the fortune.
TWILLEY: I feel like, karmically, that’s going to backfire. But you do you, Cynthia. I got my solo fortune cookie from a little takeout place down the street — I walked in and asked to buy one and the lady gave it to me, which is truly double fortune.
GRABER: Okay, here we go.
TWILLEY: Here we go.
(CRACKLING OF PACKAGES)
GRABER: One… two… “Courage is the hallmark of the warrior.”
GRABER: And then: “Embrace change, don’t battle it.”
TWILLEY I love it. Those are so uplifting, Cynthia, you are a warrior.
GRABER: I’m totally uplifted.
TWILLEY: Ok, mine: “Never stop searching for that thing that seems to escape you.” I feel like that’s slightly, like, double edged?
GRABER: Yours doesn’t sound quite as happy as mine?
TWILLEY: No, like, what? How do you know? Damn, okay fortune cookie, I feel seen.
TWILLEY: And then I turned my fortune over and looked on the back.
TWILLEY: Oh man, mine has a QR code. I’m in like in the 21st century here. What the heck!
GRABER: You have an ad on yours.
TWILLEY: It says: Kung Fu, on the CW. New series, 6pm – I have stream free, next day, and there’s a QR code! Wow, it’s a sponsored fortune, I love that.
GRABER: Even our fortune cookies aren’t immune to the forces of capitalism. If there’s white space, there’s space for an ad.
GRABER: I know everybody says they taste like cardboard, but I have to say — I kind of like them.
TWILLEY: I mean, they taste like cardboard, but they’re fine.
GRABER: Yeah, they taste like sweetened, cracker, like, cookie, sweetened crunchy cookie bits. A little stale, that’s all.
TWILLEY: I will stay, if you’re looking for crunch, you can’t go wrong with a fortune cookie.
GRABER: They are very crunchy. Okay, here’s to fortune cookies?
GRABER: Thanks this episode to Jenny 8 Lee and Kevin Chan, we have links to Jenny’s book and to Kevin’s fortune cookie factory in San Francisco on our website, gastropod.com.
TWILLEY: Happy new year to everyone! May your fortune be good and, if you win the Powerball, don’t forget to support your favorite podcast.
GRABER: We’ll be back in two weeks with the first of a special two-part series on a brew that’s dark, dreamy, and captivates millions around the world every day. That’s right, we are finally waking up and smelling the coffee. ‘Til then!