井底之蛙

1/17/2008

Fortune Cookie History

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 1:48 am

A grad student from Kanagawa University may have cracked the great riddle of Asian cuisine: the origin of the Fortune Cookie! As the NY Times reports, the original fortune cookies may have been produced by Kyoto-area confectioners in the late 1800s.1 The practice — and the distinctive iron grills used to make the sembei crackers, which are part of the historical puzzle — spread to Japanese-owned Chop Suey houses in San Francisco.2 From there, Chinese-owned restaurants began to offer them, and Chinese-owned bakeries supplied them.

Then came WWII, which changed everything.

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.

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, when Japanese bakeries all over the West Coast closed as Japanese-Americans were rounded up and sent to internment camps.

Mr. Wong pointed out: “The Japanese may have invented the fortune cookie. But the Chinese people really explored the potential of the fortune cookie. It’s Chinese-American culture. It only happens here, not in China.”

The war also served to popularize the fortune cookie

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. One of the larger outfits was Lotus Fortune in San Francisco, whose founder, Edward Louie, invented an automatic fortune cookie machine. By 1960, fortune cookies had become such a mainstay of American culture that they were used in two presidential campaigns: Adlai Stevenson’s and Stuart Symington’s.

It’s such an American tale. It’s all there: entrepreneurship, food, racism, migration, war, marketing, invention, industrialization and orientalism.3 I can’t wait to tell my students.

(Crossposted, of course)

  1. I’m immediately reminded of the rickshaw, which everyone associates with China but which was actually invented as the jinrikisha in Japan at the opening of the Meiji era. There is evidence in the Times article going back to the early 1800s, though. []
  2. Japanese in North America were much more likely to be from Kansai than Japanese in Hawai’i []
  3. Also the obsession with national origins, Japanese-Chinese competition, the value of open archives, the historiography of food culture and the power of media to shape a historical finding. []

3 responses to “Fortune Cookie History”

  1. […] by thuicc on January 17, 2008 The China history blog “Frog in a Well” has a post on the history of the fortune cookie. A grad student from Kanagawa University may have cracked the great riddle of Asian cuisine: the […]

  2. In Iris Cheng’s book “Chinese Immigrant’s in America, A Narrative history,” there is a different story about the fortune cook history. I don’t know which story is more actual. However, history is written by human and is, in some cases, mistaken or twisted. As Hessler says in his book that the ones were written might be need to leave out, and the ones that left out might be more important. Who knows?

  3. I think I have Chang’s book in my office somewhere: I’ll check it out. From her other work, though, I can say that she was more journalistic than historical in her approach to sources, and got into trouble because of it. The evidence presented in the NY Times article seems quite substantial, though, and matches what I know about the migration patterns.

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