What's Your Fortune, Cookie?

March 30, 2005

A cute story, I thought. It was actually my friend's idea -- interview the writers of those clever 'Confucius say' aphorisms. Find out the inspiration for those little strips that may be taken out with the chicken bones, or might be carried around in a wallet for years and years.

My favorite fortune of all time is "He loves you as much as he can, but he does not love you very much." Brilliant! I was only in high school at the time, but that little phrase basically summed up my love life to that point and for many years to come. (In fact, they wrote a best selling book based on that very idea, called, "He's just not that into you.")

Anyway, we all know that fortune cookies were invented here in the States, probably in San Francisco (there's lots of different versions of how they got invented; some say for little treats at the Golden Gate Park tea garden) -- which makes it the quintessential Asian American food. Sort of.

So I called up the fortune cookie companies in the Bay area to track down those wise writers. Can't be that hard, right? Wrong. No one seems to know. Most said they just got the fortunes from the printers; the printers were the ones who had the templates and they just ran them off.

So I called the printers. "You can say anything you want!" they told me. "No, I don't want to print the fortunes, I just want to know where they came from," I tried to explain. They didn't speak much English. I cursed myself for not actually learning anything in Chinese school. They weren't interested in bridging the language gap since didn't I just say I wasn't a customer?

I called another printer. "We get them from the fortune cookie factory," the phone answerer told me.

Finally I called a fortune cookie factory who said that I should just come down and speak to the owner. He'd tell me everything I want to know.

So I trundled off to Chinatown, to an alley I never noticed was there. (Let's face it, there are much better places for Chinese food and Chinese shopping than tourist-choked Chinatown.) I find the factory -- a machine that squirts batter onto round griddles that are slowly rotating like a merry-go-round. Women sit and pull off the hot flats of batter, and just as fast as you can blink, fold in a fortune to create the crescents we're all so familiar with.

I grab a finished cookie. It's terribly hot, I can't hold onto it and have to drop it back into the barrel. The bare-handed women smile and shake their heads at my patheticness.

I inquire after the owner, a gruff old man who tells me most of the fortunes were written by an old man, now dead. At least, I think that's what he said. Again with the damnation of ineffective Chinese school (which wouldn't have helped me anyway, since this is Cantonese land and I'm a Mandarin kind of girl.)

Anyone writing that's still alive? I ask. He shrugs and walks away. He's done with me.

One of the old ladies gives me a cookie. I don't take her picture because a hand-scrawled sign says, "photos $5. video $15." A constant stream of tourists has come in and bought big bags of cookies. I retreat, in defeat. I don't even remember what my fortune said.

But as I walked away I started thinking that maybe it's better to retain the mystery of where those sometimes trite, sometimes profound little prophesies originate. I liked picturing an old man who amused himself with his often little jokes and puns and jabs and insight. I considered making a short documentary about the quest to find the fortune writer.

Until now. Now I know it's some girl at San Jose State who wants to be a realtor, keeps it gender neutral, and never mentions God. Damn USA Today. Maybe they aren't so genius, after all.




my ex-girlfriend got that "he loves you as much as he can" fortune on one of her dates. the ride home was pretty quiet. it was so long ago that i had started to think that it didn't really happen. i'm glad i googled it, i thought i was going nuts.