Speed was of the essence. "To make money, you had to be fast, faster, fastest," my gung-gung says, imitating the movements with his hands: folding, pinching, lifting. Twenty years after his retirement, the process remains alive in his fingers. As a teenager, my uncle John joined my grandfather part-time after school to make his allowance. He still grimaces and shakes his head whenever I mention fortune cookies to him.

Fortune cookies are made from a simple mixture of flour, oil, egg whites, sugar, salt, and cornstarch. My uncle says that when the mixture was good—when all the ingredients struck the right balance—his days were better; the cookies almost made themselves. When the mixture was bad, it produced gloppy, wet messes or a burned char—nightmare cookies that hardened and broke before they could be properly folded. When my uncle and grandfather describe the process to me now, I think of that famous episode of I Love Lucy where Lucy works the assembly line in a chocolate factory, shoving chocolates in her mouth and down the front of her shirt to keep up with the machine.

But instead of shoving the reject cookies down their shirts, my relatives would toss them into a can at their feet. Reject canisters eventually got filled, and the bosses got angry and clicked their tongues. The error-ridden cookies? Wrapped up in plastic bags and brought home to us. Their loss was our gain. We children rejoiced at the funny, misshapen cookies that came our way. They were flat and round, half-folded, or filled with multiple paper fortunes grabbed by hasty hands on the assembly line. Getting more than one fortune was double happiness, double luck. To us, no cookie was ever a mistake.

Next: How Chinese people feel about fortune cookies


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