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History of Fortune Cookies

L’shana tova, Happy New Year (Rosh Hashanah, שָׁנָה טוֹבָה )!   I want to wish all our readers a very happy, healthy, safe, and prosperous New Year!  Whether you be Jewish or not.  Today is a day of new beginnings.  New hopes.  Anything that you can dream  you can achieve.  All you have to do is have a dream.  A wish.  And the fortunes of the Universe can be yours.  And by now, you must know how much I love fortune cookies.   And some of the sayings that you’ll find in a fortune cookie can be not only inspirational, but also portentous.  By the way, if you don’t know what “portentous” means, do what my Grandmother always told me to do, look it up in a dictionary!

Aside from a dictionaries, I also love encyclopedias.  You can learn something about everything.  But, to save you time, I thought I would share with you the history of Fortune Cookies:

Happy New Year Fortune CookieAnyone who has been to a Chinese restaurant has had, or at least seen, fortune cookies. These almond or vanilla flavored treats not only taste great, but they have a surprise inside.  A small strip of paper with a prediction or saying printed on it. The fortune cookie is a cookie with a piece of paper inside with words of supposed wisdom and/or prophecy.

The idea of fortune cookies was introduced by Makoto Hagiwara at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, as a refreshment to be taken while strolling the tea garden. The Hagiwara family was not business oriented, and there was never a patent taken out on the fortune cookie in any form (name, rights, cookie itself, or otherwise).

This confection is said to be based off of a Japanese food known as tsujiura senbei, which is associated with New Year festivities at Shinto Shrines. The tsujiura senbei, several generations old, is not sweet like the fortune cookies that were designed to fit American tastes.

The novel idea of receiving a fortune in a light senbei cookie is not widely known in Japan. The tsujiura senbei contains a tsujiura (a writing that tells one’s fortunes) inside a senbei (Japanese crackers). This senbei is traditionally found in Kyoto.

The origins of the Fortune Cookie as we know it today were laid down by the Chinese 49’ers who worked on the building of the great American railways through the Sierra Nevada into California.   Work was very hard and pleasures were few in isolated camps, those hard workers had only biscuits with happy messages inside, to exchange at the Moon festival instead of traditional cakes with happy messages, and thus the Fortune Cookie was born.

This became something of a cottage industry and as the Chinese settled in San Francisco after the railway and the Gold boom the custom continued. Today it is almost impossible to have a Chinese meal in America and Canada without finishing with a Fortune Cookie.

After WWII, a number of Americanized Chinese restaurants copied the idea. Fortune cookies became very popular, served as a dessert after every meal at many Chinese restaurants. In addition to a fortune, fortune cookies may also contain lucky numbers (used by some as lottery numbers) and a Chinese phrase with translation. Although they are served almost exclusively in Chinese restaurants abroad, fortune cookies are almost unknown in China. Places that serve them call them “Genuine American Fortune Cookies.

Humbly submitted for your consumption,

Mee Magnum  (“Chop!  Chop!”)

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