Fortune cookies are a traditional end-of-meal treat at most Chinese restaurants in the United States these days, but what exactly is the connection between this treat and the fortune inside? Is there anything wrong with reading these “fortunes?”
Someone recently sent us this question and I was surprised that it took almost 10 years of operating this Q&A blog for someone to ask it. In fact, not even I thought of it!
First, a little history.
In spite of the fact that these cookies are traditionally associated with Chinese food, they actually originate in Japan. Thanks to the research of a Yasuko Nakamachi, a folklore and history graduate student at Kanagawa University outside Tokyo, we know that there is evidence of the existence of fortune cookies in Japanese culture in books written as long ago as 1790. Referred to in some books as tsujiura senbei (“fortune crackers”) and omikuji senbei (“written fortune crackers”), she found generations-old family bakeries making the cookies near a temple outside Kyoto. Although the cookies are larger than those we commonly see today, they have the same distinctive shape and contain strips of paper containing “fortunes.”
These fortunes are derived from what the Japanese call omikuji which means “sacred lot.” These are random fortunes written on small folded or scrolled strips of paper that are distributed at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples in Japan. A person is usually required to make a small offering in order to get a fortune which is randomly picked out of a box. In some places, they can even be bought from coin-slot machines. And, as Nakamachi found, some Japanese bakeries were placing them inside the bend of their “fortune crackers.”
Most believe fortune cookies became popular in the U.S. during World War II. According to the Smithsonian, a Japanese immigrant named Suyeichi Okamura, who operated a confectionery store in San Francisco, was making fortune cookies and selling them to local eateries in 1906 where they were known as “fortune tea cakes.” During the war, military personnel on their way back from the Pacific encountered the confections and created a demand for them in their hometowns. When the Japanese were interred in prison camps during the War, Chinese businessmen supposedly seized on the opportunity to create the sought-after cookies which is how they became associated with Chinese restaurants.
By the late 1950’s, there were an estimated 250 million fortune cookies being produced in the U.S. and the fortune cookie was on its way to becoming more of an American product than Japanese. That number is now closer to three billion cookies produced annually around the world with the majority being consumed here in the U.S. The largest manufacturer, Wonton Foods based in Brooklyn, New York, produces 4.5 million fortune cookies per day and has a data base of over 10,000 fortunes that it slips inside each one.
Many smaller companies also sell these cookies and put custom fortunes inside, mostly for marketing purposes. For example, the movie Kung Fu Panda 3 used fortune cookies containing “Po-isms” to promote the movie. Lottery systems have also used the cookies to advertise their jackpots by putting a “lucky number” on the back of the slips that could possibly help someone to win the prize.
As a result of this mass-marketing, most of the “fortunes” in our fortune cookies today are fairly benign and not really about divining the future. For example, the Fortune Cookie Database contains silly messages such as “Your shoes will make you happy today” and “Land is always on the mind of a flying bird.”
When asked about fortune cookies several years ago, Father Michael Schmitz, director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth wrote: “I am only relying on what I have noticed, but I’ve seen more and more fortune cookies becoming less and less about fortune telling. I don’t know the last time I saw a fortune cookie that contained anything more than a clever saying or a joke (for example, ‘It’s easier to resist at the beginning than at the end” or “Don’t eat any Chinese food today or you’ll be very sick!’).”
However, a person can choose to take these messages seriously, such as a fortune that reads, “Wealth awaits you very soon,” which would then put them in danger of believing the fortune inside a cookie has the power to predict the future, something known only to God. This is a direct violation of the First Commandment.
Relying on any form of divination “conceals a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone” (Catechism No. 2116).
As Father Schmitz warns, “We have a God who loves us very much. While we all experience some degree of fear regarding the future, recourse to anything other than reason and God reveals that something deeper may be going on in our heart.”
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