Chinese Cookie Torture

Why don’t fortune cookies tell our fortunes anymore?

For some reason we always think the Chinese hold the key to success, happiness and all of life's little secrets. For example, we're suddenly a nation of feng shui devotees who believe--quite seriously--that the proper alignment of décor leads to wealth or serenity. Geez. How much does a country of eight gazillion bicycle-riding, spy-plane-stealing characters really know about aligning furniture properly in order to generate positive chi'i? (Cue patriotic music here.)

Still, we continue to look eastward--or westward, doesn't matter--for answers.

This week's Burning Question examines another aspect of our wistful desire to tap into eastern knowledge, the fortune cookie. In years past, these crisp Styrofoam confections--or rather, the slender sheet of paper inside--revealed all kinds of things about our futures. The fortunes said things like "You will discover true happiness" or "A generous spirit will bring you great fortune" or "The MSG alone will kill you within five years." Now, however, a snapped cookie delivers only statements, proverbs or even compliments. Our fortunes have fallen flat.

Why, then, don't fortune cookies tell our fortunes anymore?

Despite the ubiquity of fortune cookies, most companies involved in the industry are small operations. M & Y Trading Service Co. in San Francisco prints and distributes about 90 percent of all fortunes used by cookie makers. Steven Yang, the owner, cuts 800 pounds of paper each day, working seven days a week, maybe eight. "Everyone was off three days for Memorial Day," he complains, "but I worked all three days." Americans eat some 54 billion meals prepared outside the home, according to the National Restaurant Association, and Chinese establishments attract growing crowds. Demand runs so high that Young & Young, a fortune cookie bakery located in Garland, ships 200 cases of cookies on most days. That's 60,000 individually wrapped bits of tastelessness.

The person responsible for scripting the fortunes placed inside tens of millions of cookies each year is Yang's 20-year-old daughter Lisa. "All of the messages are basically still the same," she asserts, "but we've taken out a lot." She also writes 2,000 to 3,000 new messages each year. She draws inspiration from sayings she remembers from high school and random bits of research. "I will go to book stores and look up poetry books and things like that," she says. She doesn't purchase the books, by the way, just extracts the necessary information and departs.

Ah, an industry built on plagiarism and charity.

To avoid ruinous plagiarism charges one only needs to alter a few words or change one's name to Vanilla Ice. Thus the Burning Question crew found unwieldy "fortunes" like "Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself" and "Act with kindness. People return with good will to the place that has done them well." Let's see Confucius try to sort that one out. A single fortune in the 22 cookies that we sampled contained an actual prediction. Most offered mundane praise or blanket statements: "Your heart is pure and your mind is clear"; "You have great patience"; "Simplicity of character is the natural result of profound thought." So fortune cookies occasionally predict but often just fulfill a long-standing after-dinner ritual.

Simply put, they no longer tell fortunes because the family-run companies that dominate this business cannot keep up with demand.

Yet that doesn't spoil the fun of fortune cookies. Some companies create "adult" messages, and a few allow patrons to create their own fortunes. Yennie Liu, a manager at Hunan Dynasty in Irving, reports that people propose via fortune cookies every once in a while--twice this year at her restaurant. Other people tack on the phrase "in bed" to the end of each sentence.

The Burning Question crew enjoyed this game ("Keep an eye open for opportunity--in bed") for a time. But the fun always ends when things get personal.

Just what the hell did they mean by "You are talented with your hands--in bed"?

 
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