Monday, March 15, 2010

Tale Of The Fortunate Cookie

CRACKING OPEN our fortune cookies during a recent visit to a Chinese restaurant was a fun way to end a good meal. It reminded me of an article I once wrote about the history of the famous cookie and how it came to add a dash of sweetness and inspiration to Western tables.

I was surprised to learn that travellers to China who expect to be served fortune cookies after their meals will likely be out of luck. Dinner could include lily blossoms, duck’s tongue, bear’s paw or fish lips, if the restaurant is “exotic”. But it might be difficult to find even a single fortune cookie in the entire nation.

David Jung, an enterprising Chinese immigrant who owned and operated Los Angeles’ Hong Kong Noodle Company, is most often credited for inventing the communicative cookie in 1918.

Apparently, Jung was clever enough to envision the cookie as a fantastic money maker. Initially, he promoted the product as a way of lessening the boredom of customers who had long waits for their orders in the many Chinese restaurants sprouting up in the West.

The cookies became so popular that people were eventually content to wait until AFTER their meals in anticipation of reading the messages locked in their cookies. With the same eagerness of today, they broke open their mildly sweet treat and pulled out a small slip of paper that gave insight into themselves and their future.

A Presbyterian minister was first hired to condense Biblical verses into fortunes. Professional writers, often in flowery prose, later composed classic lines such as: Your feet shall walk upon a plush carpet of contentment.

The ingenious creator of the cookie understoood the deep-seated interest in personal destiny and blended that with the Chinese knack for conveying snippets of wisdom.

In ancient times, players of a Chinese parlor game wrote wise and witty sayings on scraps of paper that were tucked into a twisted cake. Also reminiscent of the chatty cookie, birth announcements were wrapped in sweet dough and sent to family and friends.

Many people in modern China believe that knowledge of their fates and fortunes can be attained spiritually in various ways. It’s not uncommon for religious temples to provide prophetic scribblings about finances or health on bamboo slivers shaped like popsicle sticks. Several of these mini-messages are stuffed into bamboo shoots which when shaken drop out some remarkable insight into the “shaker’s” future.

A variety of such practices exist throughout China today, partially due to a common belief in the good and evil influences of departed ancestors. This results in what some say is an endless array of superstitions. To ward off evil and ensure good fortune, written symbols for happiness and longevity are penned onto everything from clothes, to paper, to leaves.

Although the California-born cookie embodies a significant part of the Chinese psyche, it enthralls all people from around the globe with its delicious promise of hidden knowledge.