Fortune cookies (crisp flour cookies with a paper fortune inside) are ubiquitous at Chinese restaurants, both inside and out of Chinatown. Fortune cookies are largely unknown in China, however, and were popularized in the early 1900s in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Recent research has shown that fortune cookies were originally Japanese. (See the January 16, 2008 article below.)
Fortune cakes were popular during American Halloween festivals by at least the 1890s. These cakes contains various items that were added inside, such as coins or a ring or a thimble. A Japanese “fortune cake” is cited in print as early as 1898 and were popular by the 1920s. “Chinese fortune cakes” are cited in print by 1936.
The late New York City comedian Alan King (1927-2004) titled his 1964 book: Help! I’m a Prisoner in a Chinese Bakery! This Chinese fortune cookie joke dates to 1955.
Wikipedia: Fortune cookie
The Fortune Cookie is a crisp cookie made from flour, sugar, butter, vanilla, and milk which is baked around a fortune, a piece of paper with words of faux wisdom or vague prophecy. Throughout the western world, it is usually served with Chinese food in Chinese-American restaurants as a dessert. The message inside may also include a list of lucky numbers (used by some as lottery numbers) and a Chinese phrase with translation. Modern fortune cookies were invented in California by immigrants based on a traditional Japanese cracker, and are little-known in mainland China.
San Francisco and Los Angeles both lay claim to the origin of the fortune cookie. Makoto Hagiwara of Golden Gate Park’s Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco is said to have invented the cookie as an extension to Japanese desserts in 1909, while David Jung, founder of the Hong Kong Noodle Company in Los Angeles, is said to have invented them in 1918. San Francisco’s mock Court of Historical Review took the case in 1983. During the proceedings, a fortune cookie was introduced as a key piece of evidence with a message reading, “S.F. Judge who rules for L.A. Not Very Smart Cookie”. A federal judge of the Court of Historical Review determined that the cookie originated with Hagiwara and the court ruled in favor of San Francisco. Subsequently, the city of Los Angeles condemned the decision.
A legend says that in the 13th and 14th century, when the Mongols ruled China, a revolutionary named Chu Yuan Chang planned an uprising against the Mongols. He used mooncakes to pass along the date of the uprising to the Chinese by replacing the yolk in the center of the mooncake with the message written on rice paper. The Mongols did not care for the yolks, so the plan went on successfully and the Ming Dynasty began. The Moon Festival celebrates this with the tradition of giving mooncakes with messages inside. It is believed that immigrant Chinese railroad workers, without the ingredients to make regular mooncakes, made biscuits instead. It is these biscuits that are believed to be today’s fortune cookies.
In 2004, Yasuko Nakamachi of Kanagawa University published a report that provided evidence of the fortune cookie having originated in Japan.
8 November 1893, Indiana County Gazette (Indiana, PA), pg. 1, col. 1:
Nuts were cracked, corn was popped and the great “fortune cake” was out with becoming formality.
(A Halloween party—ed.)
3 March 1894, Bismarck (ND) Daily Tribune, pg. 3:
A delicious little luncheon was served at about 11:30, after which a fortune cake was cut, and the securing by the guests of the several tokens contained therein, was another source of interest and pleasure.
12 July 1898, Duluth (MN) News-Tribune, pg. 6:
Miss Maud Miller entertained a few friends Monday evening. The rooms were decorated with bunting and Japanese lanterns. The hostess told the fortunes of her guests by the aid of a fortune cake.
2 November 1901, Prescott (AZ) Morning Courier, pg. 2:
Thursday evening, from 7 to 9 o’clock, Mary, Frank and Gail Gardner entertained quite a number of their little friends at the home of their parents with a Hallowe’en party. Many interesting and laughable games were played. Then came the drawing for the seat of honor at the table. Henry Adams drew the lucky number. He seemed particularly fortunate, as he also drew the pen in the fortune cookies, which denotes that he will be a famous writer.
30 October 1904, Fort Worth (TX) Telegram, “The Fortunate Pie,” comic supplement, pg. 16, col. 1:
Everyone interested in Halloween festivities knows what a never failing source of amusement is the fortune cake. The newest thing in the fortune line is the fortune pumpkin pie. THe pie contains the ring, thimble, and the various articles which were baked in the cake.
Consolidated Library of Modern Cooking and Household Recipes
edited by Christine Terhune Herrick, Marion Harland, et al.
New York, NY: R. J. Bodmer Company
Cream 1 1/4 cupfuls sugar and 3/4 cupful butter; add juice and rind of half a lemon; sift in 2 cupfuls of flour, into which has been mixed 1/4 teaspoonful of baking-soda. Then add the stiffly beaten whites of 7 eggs, 1/2 cupful candied citron, 1/2 cupful blanched almonds. Midx the batter well, and last, add a ring, a dime, a thimble, and a heart.
Confectionery Trade Marks
compiled by Mida’s Trade-mark Bureau, Chicago
Chicago, IL: The Criterion Publishing Co.
Fish, Fortune Telling...Confec....Rueckheim Bros. & Eckstein...Chicago, Ill.
(Like fortune cookies?—ed.)
by Lettie C. Van Derveer
Walter H. Baker Co.
Fortune Cake:—Have a plain cake baked in a large square pan. Fold tiny fortunes in waxed paper, and place at even distances in the cake just before ...
12 February 1921, Sheboygan (WI) Press, pg. 5, col. 5:
Japanese napkins plaited into fan shapes were used and chop suey was served, regular United States sandwiches and rich cakes were a part of the menu, served with tea along with little Japanese fortune cakes, fussy brown cakes that were opened and found to hold all sorts of good lunch for the openers.
10 September 1926, Big Spring (TX) Herald, “Japanese Motif Expressed in Parties for Visitor,” pg. 11, col. 2:
Fortune cookies were served with the main course, and enclosed in each one was a rhyme or fortune, and pretty Japanese parasols were other plate favors.
12-13 April 1934, Modesto (CA) Bee, pg. 4, col. 3:
Tea cakes, fortune tea cakes with rice canapes called osushi were served with the tea in Japanese tea cups.
14 January 1936, El Paso (TX)
A COLD EVENING after a good movie is the ideal time for a hot Chinese dish at THE AZTEC CAFE, 100 E. San Antonio Street. Too, their lunches are 30c, Chinese or American, and include soup, drinks, and Chinese fortune cakes.
3 December 1936, Oakland (CA) Tribune, pg. 15, col. 1:
Chinese fortune cakes were the clever medium to divulge the secret. Served during the cocktail hour, guests found enclosed with their fortunes in the center of these cakes, miniature red hearts inscribed with the names of the young couple.
10 July 1937, Lethbridge (Alberta, Canada) Herald, “San Francisco’s Chinatown,” pg. 11, col. 2:
(This appears to be from a Japanese menu, however, also in San Francisco’s Chinatown—ed.)
8 January 1939, Fresno (CA) Bee, pg. 8A, col. 1:
The engagement news was disclosed in Chinese fortune cookies which were served with the dessert course.
30 January 1940, Nevada State Journal (Reno, NV), pg. 5, col. 1:
To carry out the theme, Chinese food and Chinese fortune cookies were served.
25 May 1940, New York (NY) Herald Tribune, Clementine Paddleford column, pg. 18, col. 7:
GOOD FORTUNE—This is served with Chinese fortune cakes, rice cakes really, but in new form. The thin dough has been doubled and folded to resemble a miniature collar. Break the collar in half and a printed fortune is found. Ours read: “Remain among your friends and you will do well,” which seems sound sense. These cakes sell in New York for 35 cents a dozen, are good to eat and good fun to serve at punchbowl parties, not too sweet either, to go nicely with wine.
27 August 1940, Los Angeles (CA) Times, “Women Rest in China City,” pg. A?:
..China City at Main and Macy Sts. ...
In the Court of Confucius Chinese girls poured tea into tiny cups from big hammered brass teapots. Oriental sesame cakes and fortune cookies were waiting in profusion.
21 November 1940, Albuquerque (NM) Journal, pg. 14, Col. 7 ad:
CHINESE THANKSGIVING DINNER
Includes: Soup, Rice, Tea or Coffee and Fortune Cake
1 March 1941, Helena (MT) Independent, pg. 10, col. 4 ad:
Chinese Fortune Cookies.
(Golden Dragon restaurant—ed.)
4 July 1941, Reno (NV) Evening Gazette, pg. 8, col. 4 ad:
FORTUNE & TEA CAKES, pkg. 10c
5 October 1942, San Francisco (CA) Chronicle, pg. 10, col. 3:
Fortune Cakes: A Threat to a Noble Art
The wisecrack has invaded the folded-up “fortune cookies” that are served with tea in the chop suey houses.
It developed first that all the rice cakes and fortune cookies sold in San Francisco are baked by Kay Heung and Company on Beckett Street. (The “and” is a delightful touch, for “Kay Heung” means “Extraordinary Fragrance.")
This firm is owned by five partners, including Charles and Harry Hoo Soo. Charles supervises the baking and Haryy does the literary work, but he is no longer in evidence on Beckett Street because he is now employed as an electrician at the Moore Shipyard. (...)
Mr. Soo Hoo has been literary adviser to Kay Heung and Company since it was founded in 1933, and in that time has placed some 100 mottoes in circulation. (...)
Mr. Soo Hoo tells me, incidentally, that fortune cookies are unknown in China, where only the flat variety of rice cake is consumed. The folded kind with the motto inside was invented in this city about 20 years ago.
13 March 1953, Dallas (TX) Morning News, part 2, pg. 11 ad:
FORTUNE TEA CAKES, a novelty dessert to serve with Oritental meals, ice cream, or at bridge parties or afternoon teas. Each cake contains an amusing fortune for your friends. 10 to 12 cakes per tin… .39
4 April 1955, Los Angeles (CA) Times, Cityside, pg. 2:
CITY LIMITS—Story is going around about a customer in a Chinese restaurant who opened one of those fortune cookies. Written in red ink on the slip inside was: “Help! I am being held prisoner by the Hong Kong Noodle Co.”
4 March 1956, Los Angeles (CA) Times, pg. K19:
Nor will producers soon forget the night Kim was supposed to sit on the bed and open Chinese fortune cookies—the kind that contain slips of paper with prophecies like, “You will make a long voyage.” As a gag, the script called for her to read, “Help, I’m a prisoner in a Chinese bakery!”
Unfortunately, though, the cookie was empty. Disconcerted, the girl on camera forgot her lines and just ate the cookie. But two minutes later, after curling up in bed and switching off the lights, she suddenly remembered. Just before the program went off the air, she let out a scream of distress: “Help!!! I’m a prisoner in a Chinese bakery!!!”
Listeners stayed awake a long time figuring that one out.
(The program was “Count Sheep” with Nancy Berg—ed.)
The Pleasures of Chinese Cooking
by Grace Zia Chu
New York, NY: Cornerstone Library
1962; reprinted 1969
Fortune cookies are unknown in China, but they have become as popular in America as chop suey.
Title: Help! I’m a prisoner in a Chinese bakery
Author: King, Alan, 1927-2004; Shurman, Jack,
Publication: New York, Dutton, 1964
Document: English : Book
New York (NY) Times
Solving a Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside a Cookie
By JENNIFER 8. LEE
Published: January 16, 2008
Some 3 billion fortune cookies are made each year, almost all in the United States. But the crisp cookies wrapped around enigmatic sayings have spread around the world. They are served in Chinese restaurants in Britain, Mexico, Italy, France and elsewhere. In India, they taste more like butter cookies. A surprisingly high number of winning tickets in Brazil’s national lottery in 2004 were traced to lucky numbers from fortune cookies distributed by a Chinese restaurant chain called Chinatown.
But there is one place where fortune cookies are conspicuously absent: China.
Now a researcher in Japan believes she can explain the disconnect, which has long perplexed American tourists in China. Fortune cookies, Yasuko Nakamachi says, are almost certainly originally from Japan.
Her prime pieces of evidence are the generations-old small family bakeries making obscure fortune cookie-shaped crackers by hand near a temple outside Kyoto. She has also turned up many references to the cookies in Japanese literature and history, including an 1878 image of a man making them in a bakery - decades before the first reports of American fortune cookies.
The idea that fortune cookies come from Japan is counterintuitive, to say the least. “I am surprised,” said Derrick Wong, the vice president of the largest fortune cookie manufacturer in the world, Wonton Food, based in Brooklyn. “People see it and think of it as a Chinese food dessert, not a Japanese food dessert,” he said. But, he conceded, “The weakest part of the Chinese menu is dessert.”
Ms. Nakamachi, a folklore and history graduate student at Kanagawa University outside Tokyo, has spent more than six years trying to establish the Japanese origin of the fortune cookie, much of that at National Diet Library (the Japanese equivalent of the Library of Congress). She has sifted through thousands of old documents and drawings. She has also traveled to temples and shrines across the country, conducting interviews to piece together the history of fortune-telling within Japanese desserts.
New York City • Food/Drink • (3) Comments • Thursday, January 17, 2008 • Permalink