Nibbling at the Truth: The History of the Fortune Cookie

Have you ever wondered how the fortune cookie came to be served at zillions of Chinese restaurants? There are several fascinating theories about what inspired the modern-day version—each with its own compelling story. The only thing that seems certain is that the fortune cookies we enjoy today were invented in the United States.        

Some trace the concept all the way back to the 14th century, when China was ruled by the Mongols. Chinese revolutionaries needed a way to pass secret messages to each other without the Mongol soldiers noticing. According to the story, a Chinese patriot, Chu Yuan Chang, came up with the idea of hiding secret messages in moon cakes during the Moon Festival.

Others stand by the story of Makoto Hagiwara of San Francisco, who created and maintained the famous Japanese Tea Gardens of Golden Gate Park. This account says that in 1907 Hagiwara was fired by racist Mayor James Phelan, and eventually reinstated by the mayor’s successor in 1914. To express his gratitude, Hagiwara began to pass out cookies with thank-you notes inside them to people who had supported him during his ordeal.

Another legend tells us that David Jung, a Chinese immigrant who was also the successful founder of Hong Kong Noodle, passed out cookies with Bible verses tucked inside to lift the spirits of poor people he saw on the streets of Los Angeles beginning in 1918.         

In 1983, fervent defenders of Hagiwara and Jung staged a mock trial in San Francisco to settle the debate once and for all. Not surprisingly, the local judge ruled in favor of Hagiwara, and the Los Angeles contingent challenged the ruling as biased.  

Though we may never be able to say for sure which of the stories are true, we do know that desserts are not common in Chinese cuisine. Fortune cookies really took hold in America after World War II; so, perhaps the Western tradition of having something sweet after dinner is what encouraged the development of today’s fortune cookies. The uncertainty behind the origin of the fortune cookie seems fitting. Not knowing where the cookie came from adds to that hint of magic and mystery we all feel when we crack open a cookie to read our fortune. 

What do you think inspired our modern day fortune cookies?

 

 

 


Kristen Golden
Kristen Golden

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