It’s too bad you can’t just crack open a fortune cookie and find out who invented the fortune cookie. Then there wouldn’t be a controversy.
Oddly enough, no Chinese cities claim the honor, but a couple of American burgs do: those feuding cousins, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
L.A. boosters have long held that the folded vanilla wafer was invented in 1918 by an Angeleno named David Jung, founder of Hong Kong Noodle Co.
One version reported by American Heritage magazine in 2005 said Jung handed out “rolled-up pastries containing scriptural passages to unemployed men.”
Another version has Jung creating the cookies not as desserts, but as appetizers for restaurateurs to serve customers impatiently waiting for their orders.
San Franciscans, on the other hand, argue that the distinction belongs to a gardener named Makota Hagiwara, who was the long-ago superintendent of the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.
“Around 1907, the story goes, Hagiwara was fired by an anti-Japanese mayor and then rehired after a public outcry,” American Heritage said. “In gratitude he gave his supporters cookies with thank-you messages inside.” The messages were in Japanese.
So stubborn are the two sides that the matter has gone to court -- well, sort of.
In 1983, the Court of Historical Review in San Francisco agreed to attempt to look into the past and settle the dispute.
A tribunal presided over by an actual judge, the court occasionally tackles issues relating to the proud -- perhaps too proud -- history of the City by the Bay.
Lest you think the fortune cookie fracas too trivial for such a body, keep in mind that the court has also deliberated on whether San Francisco bagels are as good as New York bagels: Absolutely, it said. It ruled on whether Mark Twain was correct in saying that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco: Absolutely not, it said. And it decided whether San Francisco -- not the nearby city of Martinez -- invented the martini: We’ll drink to San Francisco, the court said.
During the fortune cookie trial, a sort of “Perry Mason” moment occurred when a local city employee pulled out a set of round black iron grills and declared that “they were originally used by the Hagiwara family to cook the fortune cookies,” wrote Jennifer 8. Lee (yes, the lucky “8.” is her middle-name symbol) in her irreverent new book, “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles -- Adventures in the World of Chinese Food.”
There was further drama when a fortune cookie was introduced as evidence -- a fortune cookie with a message reading, “S.F. judge who rules for L.A. not very smart cookie.”
Grounds for a mistrial? Not in the Court of Historical Review.
The judge decided in favor of San Francisco.
But the matter didn’t end there, as any fortune-cookie writer could have predicted.
“Los Angeles boosters ignored his decision, considering it as legitimate as a Dodgers-Giants game officiated by San Francisco sandlot umpires,” American Heritage said.
Some years later, the Otis College of Art and Design, for instance, presented a list of 50 “interesting” things born in the L.A. area. It named fortune cookies along with the strapless bra, valet parking and tooth-whitening toothpaste. Of course, Otis is in the L.A. area.
More recently, the controversy took a surprising turn toward the Far East.
Lee discovered that, a few years ago, Yasuko Nakamachi, a researcher at a Japanese university, visited Kyoto and found “a number of small family-run Japanese bakeries selling cookies with a familiar shape.”
The treats “were exactly like fortune cookies,” though they were called “fortune crackers” or “bells with fortunes,” the latter term perhaps dating to when the cookies were shaped like bells.
The researcher also uncovered references to brittle cookies that contained a fortune in the fictional work of a 19th century Japanese humorist. And she chanced upon an 1878 print of a Japanese man making the cookies and using the same type of grill she had seen in Kyoto’s bakeries.
So it appears that Kyoto, not L.A. or San Francisco, deserves to be known as the birthplace of the fortune cookie, at least pending future archaeological findings in the Egyptian pyramids or elsewhere.
In a sense, Lee, a Chinese American, was not surprised that such a popular dessert originated in a country other than China: “Traditional Chinese desserts, any Chinese American child will tell you, are pretty bad. There is a reason Chinese cuisine has a worldwide reputation for won tons, and not for pastries.”
But for her, there was still “one final mystery.”
The messages in the original San Francisco fortune cookies were in Japanese.
How, she wondered, had “the Chinese managed to take over the fortune cookie business” in America?
In San Francisco, Japanese bakers had dominated the industry.
The turning point, her research revealed, was linked to the sad chapter of World War II involving the internment of Japanese Americans. Those who were fortune-cookie makers “had to leave all their equipment behind,” Lee wrote.
After the war’s end, a sign of the industry’s change of direction came when the federal government announced it was lifting price controls on “Chinese” fortune cookies.
The messages inside have also undergone changes with fortune cookies becoming “more like food-for-thought cookies or wisdom cookies,” Lee observed. One industry executive told her that predicting people’s futures was too limiting and cited the case of one old-fashioned fortune-cookie soothsayer who contracted writer’s block and got out of the business.
Then, too, personal predictions can backfire, as in the case of the woman who complained that her husband died soon after getting a message that said, “You’ll be going on a long voyage.”
The upshot, Lee noted, is that “fortune cookies hardly contain fortunes anymore” -- unless you win the Lotto with the numbers at the bottom of a message.
For all their popularity in the U.S. and Europe, there is one market the cookies haven’t penetrated: China.
The Wonton Food company tried in the mid-1990s, but the project failed. As one executive told Lee, fortune cookies were simply “too American a concept.”
Which may be of some consolation to L.A. and San Francisco.