Confucius say "Good things come to those who wait"
August 16, 2013 7:11 AM   Subscribe

As part of the preparation for a special exhibition on the history of Chinese food in America, the Smithsonian opens the world's oldest can of fortune cookies. More posts on the exhibit research under the Sweet & Sour tag. [previously]
posted by Horace Rumpole (29 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
I am now imagining this as the start of a weird story. The can is open! The fortune trapped so long can now come true!
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:26 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've read the Lee book mentioned in the post and it's definitely worth a look if you're interested in cultural/food history.
posted by immlass at 7:35 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Dear Ask MetaFilter,

Should I eat this?

-Smithsonian Employee, Chrissy Yee Lau
posted by ShawnString at 7:37 AM on August 16, 2013 [8 favorites]


The book mentioned in the article, The Fortune Cookie Chronciles by Jennifer 8. Lee, is excellent. If you're interested in the history of Chinese food (and people) in America the book touches on everything from fortune cookies to illegal immigration to the great Kosher duck scandal of 1989. It pretty definitively shows the Japanese origins of fortune cookies.
posted by Sangermaine at 7:38 AM on August 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


But the can says "Tea cakes"

" Chinese fortune cookies. They look Chinese. They sound Chinese. But they are actually American. Which is why they're hollow, full of lies, and leave a bad taste in the mouth."

-The Mandarin
posted by clavdivs at 7:40 AM on August 16, 2013 [4 favorites]


"She who clicks on [previously] expecting [more inside] will be verrrry confused about the five year timewarp."
posted by tilde at 7:47 AM on August 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


You will get a new deal.

Do not eat bowl of dust.

Beware man with small mustache.

Use helium, not hydrogen.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:49 AM on August 16, 2013


Ancient Chinese secret, huh?
posted by The World Famous at 8:04 AM on August 16, 2013 [6 favorites]


Ancient Chinese secret, huh?

Oh, I am kicking myself for not making that the title.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 8:11 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Great post, thanks. So glad they documented this carefully and would also think it would be cool for a food scientist to analyze them if possible!

Another great fortune cookie history is available in the fun documentary The Killing of a Chinese Cookie.
posted by Miko at 8:20 AM on August 16, 2013


You will experience a sudden illness
posted by louche mustachio at 8:24 AM on August 16, 2013


You will make a run for the border.
posted by tilde at 8:26 AM on August 16, 2013


My only complaint about The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is that on my last trip to San Francisco we bought it to read on the flight home. If we'd only read it a week early we would have known to visit the last hand-made fortune cookie factory!
posted by thecjm at 8:37 AM on August 16, 2013


No picture of the flower cookie? No picture of the fortune? Boo.

Interestingly, there were no lotto numbers, which begs the question of when did fortune cookie slips begin to contain lottery numbers?

Seems kind of funny to be an archivist/historian and just throw that question out there with no answer.

Incidentally... I'm not 100% certain but I remember being a kid (in Canada) and not seeing lottery numbers in fortune cookies.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 9:15 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Did you know you can turn any tea cake into a naughty tea cake by adding the words "on your chaise longue" at the end?
posted by PlusDistance at 9:55 AM on August 16, 2013 [6 favorites]


I'm pretty sure the world's oldest fortune cookies are in the drawer underneath my Aunt Pat's microwave, right next to the world's oldest duck sauce, the world's oldest soy sauce, and the world's oldest chopsticks. Don't mess with 'em though, because she's saving them.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:56 AM on August 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


Seems kind of funny to be an archivist/historian and just throw that question out there with no answer.

Another data point: Ate fortune cookies on the US East Coast as a kid and teen in the 70s and 80s with no lottery numbers, and I have a lot of saved fortunes to prove it (I used to stick them into journals and the like).
posted by Miko at 10:06 AM on August 16, 2013


Seems kind of funny to be an archivist/historian and just throw that question out there with no answer.

I assume it was a joke, since there was no legal lottery in California in the 1930s (the California State Lottery Act of 1984 passed in - you guessed it - 1984) and the vast majority of lotteries at that time were illegal numbers games. As a historian, she certainly knows that and probably assumes all her readers do, too, just as she knows that that's not what "begs the question" means, either.
posted by The World Famous at 10:33 AM on August 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


just as she knows that that's not what "begs the question" means

No reason to assume she knows either thing. I think she's using "begs the question" colloquially, like most people do (for "this question figuratively begs to be answered"), and she might not know it has a strict meaning in formal logic. Logic isn't always a requirement for a history PhD.

She also might not know much, if anything, about lottery histories. Her doctoral research seems to have been on "Japanese American middle-class culture during the 1920s and 1930s in southern California" and not the history of gaming. The question is a perfectly reasonable one - she doesn't know when the lottery numbers were introduced because she hasn't investigated that question yet. But she's identified the question, and is sharing her thinking process there. And it is a somewhat interesting question - there is probably a very complex history of the "lucky number" phenomenon and how that's interacted with American fascinations with "Orientalism" and I suspect the hybridization of lotto and fortune cookies is part of that. A new PhD who's 30 or under may never have ever encountered a fortune cookie fortune without a Lotto number - so she might not have expected not to find one, and of course, the next question is, when did the two things get combined, by whom, and why?
posted by Miko at 11:15 AM on August 16, 2013


Did you know you can turn any tea cake into a naughty tea cake by adding the words "on your chaise longue" at the end?
posted by PlusDistance

Among my Bay Area friends (many of whom are trans*), it's "...In bed with a with a tranny." I like the chaise version, though.

Also, my 1st generation Jewish-American parents have a decorative container with every fortune from every fortune cookie they've eaten since they were married. That is a LOT of fortunes over 50+ years! It's stoneware crock labelled "Decisions".
posted by Dreidl at 11:17 AM on August 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


Confucius say man who fart in church, sit in his own pew.
posted by stenseng at 11:35 AM on August 16, 2013


Miko, I was just being nice and giving her credit for a couple of things I think a History Ph.D. probably ought to know. Wondering why a 1930s fortune cookie fortune doesn't include Lotto numbers strikes me as analogous to wondering why Mark Twain never wrote about listening to Def Leppard on his Walkman.
posted by The World Famous at 11:36 AM on August 16, 2013


Not at all. Why would she be expected to know when Lotto numbers first began appearing on fortunes? Do you know? Do other historians know that? Would you expect a Civil War historian to know that? Or a historian of the women's movement?

One thing that surprises many people about historians' training is how very topically specialized it is after some generalized work on methods in history. They are trained to ask these kinds of questions when something strikes them as interesting, and to place those questions in larger contexts, but they don't spend much time memorizing timelines for everything that happens in pop culture. I just don't see any reason to expect someone to just know this factoid based on typical history masters' degree coursework; I think they could make educated guesses based on general understandings of historical periods, but the advent of Lotto is not something usually treated as central to a broad foundational understanding of American culture. But she might know that lottery games go right back to pre-Revolutionary times in America, and there have been many ways of playing games of chance throughout American history - so it would be imprudent to assume that there was ever a time fortunes didn't have Lotto numbers on them, without evidence to the contrary.

If she doesn't know these things, it is in no way a negative comment on her abilities as a historian.
posted by Miko at 11:42 AM on August 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


Here's Wikipedia's history of US lotteries showing that the inclusion of lottery numbers could easily have been part of early fortune cookies, especially as generalized "lucky numbers" for use in any kind of numbers game.
posted by Miko at 11:51 AM on August 16, 2013


Not at all. Why would she be expected to know when Lotto numbers first began appearing?

I cannot speak to why people other than me might expect her to know it. But I expected her to have at least a vague sense of the Lotto being a relatively recent phenomenon because it's something so utterly banal and obvious to me that I assume anyone with even a vague cultural knowledge of modern American history would associate it, as I do, with very recent developments.

I don't have any reason to suspect that the history of lotteries in the United States is part of the curriculum for a History Ph.D. at UCSB. I assume - perhaps incorrectly - that, prior to beginning her Doctorate study, she had a more general education, and that that education included some U.S. history study.

I just don't see any reason to expect someone to just know this factoid based on typical history masters' degree coursework.

Indeed. I agree wholeheartedly. I expect her to know this factoid not based on her history masters' degree coursework, but simply as a matter of general cultural literacy. After all, I do not have a masters' degree in history (or any degree in history, for that matter), but the notion of the Lotto as a very modern phenomenon as a part of national U.S. culture is so utterly banal that it jumped off the page at me and prompted me to Google "History of the California Lottery," which is where I learned the exact year that California made the state lottery legal. One more click from there and there I was learning that legal lotteries existed in one form or another in the U.S. as far back as the 1800s, but that they were quite rare, not legal in California in 1930, and that lotteries primarily took the form of illegal numbers games.

Basically, I don't expect her to have learned about it as part of her graduate studies. I expect her to already have a vague sense of it and then be curious enough to Google it in the event that she is curious enough to mention it in her article.

Here's Wikipedia's history of US lotteries showing that the inclusion of lottery numbers could easily have been part of early fortune cookies, especially as generalized "lucky numbers" for use in any kind of numbers game.

Indeed, that's one of the pages I found when I googled it, too. I suspect that not too many fortune-cookie-buying Californians in 1930 were playing the lotteries of other states often enough for it to occur to anyone to put that on the fortune. But you have a very good point, and it certainly could have been easy for fortune cookie manufacturers in 1930s California to include numbers on the fortunes just in case a customer happened to be traveling to a state that did have the lottery at some point. Are you positing that the reason the numbers were not included back then was for some reason other than that legal lotteries were not a pervasive enough cultural phenomenon in the U.S. for the issue to have been on the radar of California fortune cookie manufacturers and their customers? If so, what do you believe the reason is for the absence of such numbers on fortunes of that time?
posted by The World Famous at 12:10 PM on August 16, 2013


But I expected her to have at least a vague sense of the Lotto being a relatively recent phenomenon because

the notion of the Lotto as a very modern phenomenon as a part of national U.S. culture is so utterly banal


...but it's not. It's not modern. That's why it doesn't make sense to me that you think everyone should realize it's modern as part of "general cultural literacy." That would be wrong, because general cultural literacy says it's not modern.

I suspect that not too many fortune-cookie-buying Californians in 1930 were playing the lotteries of other states often enough for it to occur to anyone to put that on the fortune

It's also not limited to government-run lotteries, which I think is making you confused about why this would happen in California. I think you're misunderstanding my offering these links as evidence that there certainly could have been lucky numbers on 1930s material. I'm not insisting that the lucky numbers on fortunes have to relate to state-run lotteries. Lotteries don't have to have been state-run to have been popular. The advent of lotteries run by states is relatively recent, but the playing of lotteries across the US goes back to when it was a set of colonies. Before lotteries were regulated by state and federal law, they were extremely common - the local bar on the corner could run a lottery. A town could run a lottery. A library could run a lottery. There were all kinds of lotteries all across the US. It was actually an extremely common way to fundraise for things like road improvements or library collections.

Are you positing that the reason the numbers were not included back then was for some reason other than that legal lotteries were not a pervasive enough cultural phenomenon in the U.S. for the issue to have been on the radar of California fortune cookie manufacturers and their customers?

No, exactly the opposite. Lotteries have always been super popular in American history.

If so, what do you believe the reason is for the absence of such numbers on fortunes of that time?

I wouldn't talk about a "reason for absence," since that is not a knowable thing, but the reason for their eventual presence. Since I've read the Lee book and seen the movie I mentioned, I suspect the reason for their presence is down to the innovation of an individual in what was a fairly competitive fortune-cookie marketplace during the explosion of popularity of Chinese restaurants in the 1930s-50s.

The prevalence of sources of lucky numbers is something I've seen a lot in museums, from before the American revolution. You can find lucky numbers in farmer's almanacs, dream books, horoscopes, and reports of interactions with mediums and spiritualists. There were certainly people in California from very early times taking part in these non-governmental lotteries, and thus responsive to the many things one could play with lucky numbers.

There was also a lot of popularization of Chinese divination in the 1920s/30s (I Ching, Chinese Zodiac, etc), and I think there was a strong affinity between the idea of luck/fortune in general as something dealt with in Chinese cosmology, and specific lucky numbers. It wouldn't take much for an entrepreneur to think of adding lucky numbers to a slip of paper already professing to contain your fortune, and by doing so, distinguish an otherwise pretty generic product from the contemporary competition. That's just a theory - there is a history here to discover; this was someone's idea, and I think it's a very good historical question to ask who added them, when, and why.
posted by Miko at 2:00 PM on August 16, 2013


Oh for crying out loud.
posted by The World Famous at 2:05 PM on August 16, 2013


Yeah, if you think of lotteries much more broadly the question seems, as it should, far more reasonable. One of the great adventures of history scholarship is identifying some random thing we all take for granted and asking "but when did it start?"
posted by Miko at 2:07 PM on August 16, 2013


Yes, it's all very interesting.
posted by The World Famous at 2:10 PM on August 16, 2013


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