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
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
As far as I can tell, most Chinese aren't crazy about fortune cookies. They're not particularly tasty or special. They're not even really Chinese: No one knows for sure, but they were likely created in the United States in the 19th century as makeshift moon cakes to celebrate the lunar festival. But for my mother, fortune cookies remind her of her father. When she eats one, it's almost in an absentminded way. Rather than relishing them, as I do, she chews them mechanically, almost as if she's eating them for sustenance. And in a way she is. Those cookies sent my aunts and uncle to college in New York, buying books and clothes and all the necessities of life. The foundation for my relatives' success, and mine, was laid down with each circle of dough that my grandfather shaped. Fortune cookies helped make us who we are.
Before the cookies were produced by machine, my gung-gung had a hand, literally, in the fortunes of about 35 million people. Today all the factories have moved out of Chinatown. The process is fully automated, churning out millions of cookies a day, in all sizes and flavors: chocolate, lemon, orange, almond; dipped in fudge, encrusted with sprinkles, perched on a martini, filled with personalized fortunes or with flavored mousse. They come in individual wrappers with the ingredients clearly labeled. Once, a boyfriend gave me a giant cookie with a special happy birthday message stowed inside.
I love fortune cookies. I love them precisely because they were created at that unique intersection between China and America. There's a fortune that I carry around in my wallet now. It says, "No need to worry! You will always have everything that you need." Because of my grandfather, I actually believe it.
Bonnie Tsui is the author of American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods (Globe Pequot Press).
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