I don't recall the first time I ate a fortune cookie. What I do know is that the crispy treats my grandfather brought home by the sackful were ubiquitous in my early gastronomic life. Other people delicately snapped open single cookies to punctuate a restaurant meal. My brother and I sat and bolted the sweets down in mass quantities as we watched cartoons. Mining the cookies for favorable fortunes, we tossed aside the paper slips like so many unwanted peanut shells. I kept the best messages and carried them around with me in my pockets, to be replaced by more auspicious ones as they came along. Half the fun of fortune cookies is—as it was then—cracking them open to see what life has in store.
For much of my childhood, my grandfather—or gung-gung, in my family's native Cantonese—worked at a fortune cookie factory in New York's Chinatown. Though he had labored faithfully for several years in a Chinese-owned laundry, the advent of permanent press and wrinkle-free fabrics slowed customers to a trickle, sending them to coin-operated Laundromats. In 1968, on the advice of some friends in the business, he started work in the first of three different fortune cookie plants.
He was 46 when he began folding hot dough into cookies. Splat! shot the dough onto circular metal plates in front of him. Around and around they went on a conveyor belt. Quick, attentive fingers snatched the paper-slip fortunes and placed one in the center of each circle. In the same breath, the other hand skimmed up a still-floppy cookie, folded it once, and dropped it, steaming, into a slot on the conveyor belt to hold its final, proper shape. By the time all the slots were filled, the cookies were ready to be plucked from the belt and loaded into buckets.
He was paid by the bucket—at first only a couple of dollars for each one filled, then, later on, three and change. He never made much more than $200 a week. With fingers bandaged to handle scalding dough more deftly, he and the other workers each averaged two buckets an hour. Five hundred cookies a bucket, two buckets an hour, eight hours a day, five or six days a week. For 16 years. That's a lot of cookies.
Next: The art of making fortune cookies