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Know Your Fortune Cookie: New Faces on an Old Friend
Fruits, Desserts, and Other Sweet Foods
Spring Volume: 1997 Issue: 4(1) page(s): 17
Everyone knows that the Fortune Cookie is an ancient and unchanging Chinese tradition-right? Wrong! In fact, not only was the fortune cookie American-born but, ironically, although the crisp confections are currently shipped to France, Italy, Spain, Latin America, Israel and the far-flung Middle-East (always with messages in the appropriate tongue), an attempt to promote the cookie in China proved to be the single export failure reported by Donald Lau, Vice President of Wonton Food, Inc., a major producer.
At their plant in Long Island City, New York, over one million cookies are turned out daily by clever machines that mix the dough, print messages, bake and cut the pastry into discs, deposit a cutout motto at the center, and finally gently press the product into the familiar dimpled form. "In the old days," reminisces Lau, "when the cookies were handmade, workers ultimately lost their finger prints from the ongoing burns inflicted by hot dough. Machinery is kinder to the staff and frees their talents to develop such modern breakthroughs as flavors that go beyond the ordinary vanilla-citrus." On the afternoon of our visit, we sampled pink and green specimens that were in process for Christmas as well as cocoa-infused chocolate ones
What has remained the same after fifty years at this location (the past ten years under Lau's direction), is the basic recipe for the dough: flour, sugar, shortening water, and the chosen flavoring agent. Everything else evolved to meet modern styles and demands.
Fifty years ago, fortunes were composed by free-lance writers, leaning towards Confucius and borrowing from soap operas. Lau himself tried his hand, taking his cue from TV shows, daily life situations, encounters on the subway; in a pinch, he might consult the I Ching.
Today, he accesses an electronic database to supply the five to six thousand rotating mottoes that roll off his giant drums. Electronics is not, alas, an unmixed blessing to the manufacturer. By typing 'fortune cookie' when going to the internet, the seeker of destiny may avoid his local restaurant and still summon dozens of sites that will yield messages from 'virtual fortune cookies.' These, are bound to be crunchless experiences!
That good crunch and flavor of the 'real thing' continue to enchant and to endure--but the writings are ever-changing in response to social change and business developments. A few rules are unalterable: the message must be positive, 'you'-oriented, reasonably realistic, and limited to under a dozen words.
The old naivete of, 'you will meet a handsome stranger,' has been supplanted by more thoughtful challenges and Freudian character-analysis: 'your modesty will shame those with lesser knowledge,' and 'your love of life will carry you through every circumstance.' Instead of Confucius, the thoroughly modern fortune cookie will quote literary, political or psychiatric luminaries.
The latest component from this wonton factory is a list of 'lucky numbers,' by special request from lottery fans. The uses of fortune cookies are clearly headed for new horizons. No longer limited to sounding the finale to a Chinese meal, the tasty tidbits could carry corporate propaganda to Western-style dinners, for distribution at shopping malls, and at point-of-purchase sites.
Anniversary parties, bar mitzvahs, political conventions, advertising campaigns are all cause for "special orders" that are handled by Wonton Food with a mixture of enthusiasm and reluctance. Since such orders must be handmade, they are costly and disruptive to factory routine. Yet, professional pride is such that Mr. Lau, himself, embraced the problem when a second grade teacher assigned her class to write a set of fortunes--the challenge being to excel in both brevity and thought--and she mailed the results to the Wonton offices. Lau returned the courtesy by printing the messages and folding them into cookies, which he shipped to the delighted class. Considering that a case of handmade cookies can cost as much as $100, while machine-made product retail at just $1 per dozen, this gesture affirms the generous enthusiasm of a truly dedicated professional.
Lau also donated over five thousand cases of cookies armed with campaign slogans to the '92 Clinton campaign. Obviously, destiny was and is on his side! May similar good fortune descend upon all of us, whenever and wherever our cookie crumbles!
Judy Ross, when not traveling and tasting, often provides materials for Flavor and Fortune.