Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Fortune Cookie

It only takes egg whites, vanilla, almond, vegetable oil, flour, cornstarch, salt, a lot of sugar and water to bake a handful of these moon-shaped, vanilla-flavored wafers more commonly known as Fortune Cookies. However crunchy and appealing, Fortune Cookies are remembered for the ‘fortunes’ – read: predictions – they contain. The fortune is the little piece of paper (no bigger than your thumb) inside the cookies. On it, you will find an omen or a piece of advice, which is meant to give general statement that work for anybody, anywhere, anytime. Originally, fortunes were based on verses and proverbs from the Bible or even English translations of 'Confucius’ thoughts'. Nowadays, fortunes are more and more catchy, funny, self-reflexive; they say things like: “Never believe anything you read in a fortune cookie.”

Where can you find Fortune Cookies? In China? Japan? And the right answer is, surprisingly: they’re served together with the dessert in Chinese restaurants in America. While Americans believe the tradition originated in China, it appears that the Chinese have never heard about it. The rightful inventor of the Fortune Cookie is baron Makoto Hagiwara from the Japanese Tea Garden in San Fransisco and dates back to around 1900. Fortune cookies were made to match the taste of green tea and to lighten the tea garden’s mood. They were then introduced in the San Francisco markets by the Hagiwaras. Demand became larger and so did the production at the Benkyodo Company, the appointed bakery. After WWII, the cookie became largely associated with Chinese restaurants. There is one theory that explains the ‘defection’ of the confection from Japanese-Americans to Chinese-Americans. During WWII, the American government was afraid of the potential threat the Japanese immigrants represented in their own country and decided to lock them up in internment facilities: the so-called relocation camps. Chinese restaurants saw this as an opportunity to take over the cookie and the business that went with it. Americans continued to love the concept all the same. It was becoming so popular that it spread to most major cities. After a few years, San Fransico and Los Angeles started vying for the honorific title of ‘inventor of the Fortune Cookie’. Nowadays, historians try to link the origin of the Fortune Cookie with the Mooncake: a Chinese pastry that had supposedly been used during the Ming revolution (14th century) to pass secret messages between soldiers.

Much more than a dessert, the Fortune Cookie has become a real trend in the USA. Americans just can’t get enough of it. Not only do the sales hit the ceiling with 3 billion cookies each year, but the amount of by-products available is also beyond belief. Movies, usb-keys, wedding treats, jewellery, gourmet cookies... you name it.

Mélinda & Benoit

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