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Comes With Orange Slice
January 16, 2008 6:21 AM   Subscribe

The history of the humble fortune cookie is in dispute.
posted by Xurando (16 comments total)

 
Just finished the NYT article (the dispute link). Fascinating! And come to think of it, that certain kind of hard, brittle, sweet wafer (very similar to the fortune cookie in taste and consistency) is very common here in Japan.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:03 AM on January 16, 2008


You are not using Internet Explorer Please call 1-800-644-9474 between 8:300 - 5:00 PST to place an order.

Um, no.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 7:20 AM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


“The weakest part of the Chinese menu is dessert.”

Adding the fortune cookie does not strengthen it.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:32 AM on January 16, 2008


I have mixed feelings about this.

First, the NY bias really gets to me. She doesn't think that fortune cookies were popular until they reached across the country to NY. (If it ain't in NY, it doesn't exist).

She mentions seeing in Japan "an 1878 image of a man making them in a bakery", yet some people say that the Chinese were already making them in the US before this (among the 49rs Chinese immigrants building the railroads).

On the other hand she references the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate park. My family used to take me there when I was little and they always had fortune cookies along with other Japanese crackers and snacks. The tea houses in Japan often offer sweet crackers. My Dad used to go there when he was young and also remembers the fortune cookies. But, of course, this doesn't go back to the 1800s.

It's possible, but I'm not yet convinced.
posted by eye of newt at 8:22 AM on January 16, 2008


First, the NY bias really gets to me. She doesn't think that fortune cookies were popular until they reached across the country to NY. (If it ain't in NY, it doesn't exist).

You might want to check your paranoia meter—it may be redlining. Here's the relevant section of the article:
The cookie’s path is relatively easy to trace back to World War II. At that time they were a regional specialty, served in California Chinese restaurants, where they were known as “fortune tea cakes.” There, according to later interviews with fortune cookie makers, they were encountered by military personnel on the way back from the Pacific Theater. When these veterans returned home, they would ask their local Chinese restaurants why they didn’t serve fortune cookies as the San Francisco restaurants did.

The cookies rapidly spread across the country. By the late 1950s, an estimated 250 million fortune cookies were being produced each year by dozens of small Chinese bakeries and fortune cookie companies.
Do you see any mention of NY there? No, neither do I. It used to be "a regional specialty," then it "spread across the country." Unless you're pretending that San Francisco is the entire country, I don't see what possible quarrel you could have with that description. (N.b.: Even if the article had made a point of mentioning when the cookies arrived in NYC, it would be perfectly in order, because the New York Times, in case it had escaped your attention, is a New York paper. But the only mention of the city in the entire piece is this: "Ms. Nakamachi, who has long had an interest in the history of sweets and snacks, saw her first fortune cookie in the 1980s in a New York City Chinese restaurant." Should they have left that out because it might make paranoid out-of-towners uncomfortable?)

As for "some people say that the Chinese were already making them in the US before this," give me a break. You took that straight out of the "is" link, which also includes this classic urban legend:
The story goes that the Mongols had no taste for Lotus Nut Paste and so the Chinese hid the message containing the date in the middle of their Moon Cakes replacing the yolk with secret messages. Patriotic revolutionary, Chu Yuan Chang took on the disguise of a Taoist priest and entered occupied walled cities handing out Moon Cakes. These were the instructions to co-ordinate the uprising which successfully formed the basis of the Ming Dynasty.
Until you can tell the difference between jolly pseudohistory provided on the website of "Europe's Largest Fortune Cookie Manufacturer" and actual research (such as that cited in the article), it might be best to confine your skepticism to your own brain.
posted by languagehat at 8:38 AM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


You can take tours of the fortune cookie factory in San Francisco.
posted by miss lynnster at 9:43 AM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


...in bed.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:25 AM on January 16, 2008 [4 favorites]


The author of the NYT piece is authoring a book on the subject.
posted by cazoo at 10:44 AM on January 16, 2008


I'm unconvinced. Just because there is something in Japan which bears a resemblance to the Chinese fortune cookie does not establish a causal link. She fills it in with speculation about Chop Suey restaurants and whatnot. It is weak, circumstantial evidence that would not hold up in court. She has not found a smoking gun.

From her website where she promotes her own book:

So how did Japanese fortune cookies end up in Chinese restaurants? That’s a bit of a mystery.

Indeed.
posted by vacapinta at 12:24 PM on January 16, 2008


"Hold up in court"? WTF? There's no court case here, and "beyond a reasonable doubt" standards do not apply. No one has known where these tasteless little things come from (hint: they don't have them in China, despite the cuckoo claims of one of the linked sites), and this woman has been doing a lot of research on it and found a possible history that looks pretty reasonable to me. Some of you people don't seem to be interested in anything at all except snark.
posted by languagehat at 12:41 PM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


I was using "holding up in court" as an analogy. As you said, she has found a "possible history." I'm expressing doubt that she has nailed it in any way.

She discovered something in early Japan which is fortune-cookie like, no doubt. But, as I said, thats not a causal link. Pita wrappers and tortillas look alike too.

Here's the relevant section of the article where they try to clarify this supposed link. The bolds are mine.

Ms. Nakamachi is still unsure how exactly fortune cookies made the jump to Chinese restaurants. But during the 1920s and 1930s, many Japanese immigrants in California owned chop suey restaurants, which served Americanized Chinese cuisine. The Umeya bakery distributed fortune cookies to well over 100 such restaurants in southern and central California.

“At one point the Japanese must have said, fish head and rice and pickles must not go over well with the American population,” said Mr. Ono, who has made a campaign of documenting the history of the fortune cookie through interviews with his relatives and by publicizing the discovery of the kata grills.

Early on, Chinese-owned restaurants discovered the cookies, too. Ms. Nakamachi speculates that Chinese-owned manufacturers began to take over fortune cookie production during World War II,


I'm not snarking. I'm reading between the lines. The causal link is all speculation, coincidentally by people of Japanese origin. Thats good enough to write an entertaining book, I guess. But would you publish a research paper based on evidence like that, languagehat?
posted by vacapinta at 1:18 PM on January 16, 2008


Fantastic story (especially the NYT link). It's really interesting to me how Chinese/Hunanese restaurants always seem to follow the same menu, but never really match exactly what you would find in China. They're kind of like an unofficial franchise, you usually know what to expect.

The story of General Tso's chicken has a similar background, although wasn't invented until 1977 by an american chinese resturant owner (unfortunately, the General himself never had the opportunity to enjoy his chicken)
posted by samsara at 2:00 PM on January 16, 2008


But would you publish a research paper based on evidence like that, languagehat?

No, of course not. But it doesn't seem reasonable to me to hold a Times article or a popular book to the standards of a research paper. I agree she hasn't proven anything, but then again she explicitly says she hasn't, which in my view puts her head and shoulders above idiots like this, who claim their cockamamie theories are rock solid (and you'll note the Times is pathetically credulous about him). Isn't it worth publishing material that is suggestive but not probative, to provide a basis for further researches that could nail it down? I'm glad you weren't snarking, but you do seem to be treating it as wild (and presumptively useless) speculation rather than an informed guess. I mean, it's not as if there's an established theory that she's quixotically trying to overturn; nobody knows where the little buggers come from. As I said, it's definitely not China. So why not Japan?
posted by languagehat at 2:21 PM on January 16, 2008


No restaurants in Hong Kong serve fortune cookies. I've never seen one here in more than 9 years.

As for mooncake, you can't get away from it.
posted by bwg at 3:47 PM on January 16, 2008


They still have one of the original katas used by the Japanese Tea House in San Francisco (pic halfway down the page).

From the same article:

Erik Hagiwara-Nagata said of what he learned from his great aunt, Haruko Hagiwara-Matsuishi and other family members:
The cookie, Tsujiura Sembei was a savory confection in Japan and it was probably sweetened to suit American tastes and it was given out, gratis, with the Green Tea, which was also introduced here in the West. The fortune cookie was made here in the Garden. It was made by hand and it had to be folded while it was still hot. The fingertips almost got burnt because it was a hot cookie. You couldn’t fold it when it was cool because the cookie would harden up. Later on, it was our baker, Benkyodo-do, they made the cookies and they brought them here.

-
posted by oneirodynia at 4:17 PM on January 16, 2008


ou might want to check your paranoia meter—it may be redlining. Here's the relevant section of the article: The cookie’s path is relatively easy to trace back to World War II. At that time they were a regional specialty, served in California Chinese restaurants

Well we can get into an East Coast vs West Coast war if you want. California is bigger than New England, all the way down to Washington. 'Out here' something that exists in the whole state isn't 'regional', just as you wouldn't consider anything that covers the New England through Washington 'regional' (you can tell me you would, but I might not believe you). The word struck me, so I had to comment.

It is all pseudohistory--she even presents several theories. You obviously have your favorite.
posted by eye of newt at 8:08 PM on January 16, 2008


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