Eye of the Beholder: Something Wonderful is about to Happy

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Photo by Ko Sasaki.

“A gentleman is one who puts half his weight on elbows.” I know you know what that means. And if Wonton Food, Inc. in Long Island City had its way, you’d be convinced that such wisdom could only be the timeless philosophy of Confucius.

But alas, it’s hard to say exactly who the mastermind is behind the success of the three billion fortune cookies manufactured annually. What I can tell you is that it’s not the Chinese.

The dominant theory is that in fact the Chinese fortune cookie is Japanese. Records show that the traditional tsujiura senbei, or fortune crackers, were a bit larger and a bit browner, but by and large had the same shape. Tsujiura is a style of fortune telling that originated at the Hyotanyama shrine outside of Osaka. It was a long, tough walk for the pilgrims up to the shrine, and many couldn’t make it, and a devout entrepreneur came up with the idea to market the cookies to those who fell a few steps short.

It gets messy at the turn of the 20th century. There are two principal claims to the cookie throne, one from San Francisco and the other, an immigrant in Los Angeles boast to have invented the wise pastry as we know it. And their rivalry mirrors the larger and long-lasting cultural feud between Northern and Southern California.

Makoto Hagiwara was a gardener responsible for designing the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. Fired by an anti-Japanese mayor at the turn of the century and then reinstated by his sage successor, Hagiwara created a cookie in 1914 with a thank you note inside for all of those who had stood by him during the affair. On display at the Panama-Pacific Exhibition (San Francisco’s world fair), they were regularly available at the gardens.

Yet, in 1918, David Jung reported that out of a sense of empathy for the poor and hungry wandering the streets outside his LA shop, he created the cookie and put inspirational Bible scripture in each one written specifically for this purpose by a Presbyterian minister.

In either case, during Japanese internment in the 1940s, the bakeries were shut down and the Chinese took over, raking in the fortune. Never ones to let an opportunity slip by, Chinese fortune cookie factories now have automated machines that produce 8,000 cookies an hour.

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