Pile of Fortune Cookies

The Fortune Cookie Is Actually a Uniquely American Invention

Find out the history behind these Asian-influenced, American-made treats.

Eating Chinese food just wouldn’t be the same if you didn’t have those enticing golden crackers with secret messages inside to look forward to. But like many aspects of Chinese cuisine in the United States, these cookies aren’t Chinese. They’re actually based on a few Japanese traditions that came together in a new way to become an American tradition.

According to a recent report by the TODAY show, it all started with a Japanese man named Makoto Hagiwara, who from 1895 to 1925 ran the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, where he served tea and fortune cookies. The treats spread primarily in Japanese restaurants until around the 1940s, when Chinese businessmen saw the opportunity to supply and provide the cookies in Chinese restaurants, and so it began. (One tragic theory holds that the entrepreneurial opportunity arose while many U.S. citizens of Japanese descent were held in detention camps during World War II.)

This simple cookie is made using flour, sugar, vanilla, and sesame oil, but what really revolutionized the manufacturing process was a machine invented by Edward Louie in San Francisco. He constructed the first machine that could fold the dough as well as insert the fortune into the cookie. Cookie machines today are a little more advanced and can make up to 8,000 cookies in an hour! First the machine mixes the ingredients, then it pours the batter into 3-inch cups which are then covered in metal plates to keep the batter flat. The cookies are then cooked in circles for about 4 minutes. While the cookies are still warm, vacuums are used to suck a fortune inside each cookie. Then using metal prong-like fingers, the fortune is folded in half and the cookie is bent into shape. After cooling, the machine packages the final cookie for sale.

They certainly have made an impact over the years — around 3 billion of these quirky cookies are produced annually, and nearly all of them are manufactured in the United States. Quite a number of lottery winners have attributed their good fortune to the lucky numbers from the edible origami. So next time you eat your sesame chicken, you’ll have a little more appreciation for the history behind those hackneyed little phrases. Long-live the fortune cookie.

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