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June2009
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How Fortune-ate

For many of us, the capper at the end of a great Chinese meal is the fortune cookie. Where else can you get words of wisdom and lottery numbers, all in one delectable little treat? But just how do those fun slips of paper make it inside? The cookies are baked as flat circles. After they are removed from the oven, slips of paper are folded inside while the cookies are still warm and flexible. As the fortune cookies cool, they harden into shape.

Festival of the god of good fortune, Ebisu. 1800 or 1801. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-DIG-jpd-02644 (digital file from original print); Call No.: FP 2 - JPD, no. 2226 a, b, c (E size) [P&P] Japanese Tea Garden, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, Calif. 1904

The answer to this and many other “Everyday Mysteries” can be found in the Library’s web pages of the same name. These mysteries deal with everyday phenomena often taken for granted, but each can be explained scientifically.

The invention of the fortune cookie has been a cause of much dispute. Conflicting stories pitted a Japanese man named Makoto Hagiwara against a Chinese-American named David (Tsung) Jung. In 1914 San Francisco, Hagiwara owned what is now called the Golden Gate Park Japanese Tea Garden, where he served tea and fortune cookies. Jung owned the Hong Kong Noodle Company in Los Angeles and claimed to have stuffed the cookies with passages from the Bible and handed them out to unemployed men near his bakery in 1918. In 1983, the debate between the two confectioners came to a head in the Court of Historical Review in San Francisco, where Judge Daniel M. Hanlon decided in favor of Hagiwara. However, some could argue that the fortune cookie traces its roots back as far as the 14th century, where a Taoist priest and his followers sent messages hidden inside traditional Chinese moon cakes to inform rebels about potential uprisings against the Mongol invaders.

Fortune cookies often come at the end of a meal in a Chinese, and sometimes Japanese, restaurant. Traditionally, the fortunes were Confucian phrases about life. Nowadays, the fortunes inside the cookies contain just about everything from quotes to advice. Often, they are written in both English and Chinese, and may have lottery numbers and smiley faces on them.

Jennifer 8. Lee (her middle name connotes "prosperity" in Chinese), gave a lecture in 2008 on her recent book “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food.” Lee crisscrossed the country to explore the stories of lottery winners who obtained their lucky numbers through fortune cookies. This research, in turn, led to explorations of Chinese restaurants, their owners and workers, the commonality of the menus across the country, the iconic white takeout cartons, soy-sauce packets, cookies and other aspects of the Chinese food industry.

Select internet resources on China and Japan are made available as part of Portals to the World, links to electronic resources from all over the globe.


A. Festival of the god of good fortune, Ebisu. 1800 or 1801. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-DIG-jpd-02644 (digital file from original print); Call No.: FP 2 - JPD, no. 2226 a, b, c (E size) [P&P]

B. Japanese Tea Garden, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, Calif. 1904. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-USZ62-65779 (b&w film copy neg.); Call No.: LOT 9062 [item] [P&P]