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What is the origin of fortune cookies?

What would you say if I told you fortune cookies aren't originally Chinese? Probably not a huge shocker after yesterday's post about Italian Sodas (I guess that one is on me)... but here we are again with an interesting history about a food item who's origins are surprising.

The origin of fortune cookies was widely debated with several people staking claim to the introduction of the Fortune Cookie. All of them living in America in the early 1900's. It even went so far as to San Francisco's Court of Historical Review attempted to settle the dispute in 1983, but there was no clear answer. That is until researcher Yasuko Nakamachi started digging.

The cookie's history can be easily traced back to WWII when military personnel took a liking to them and requested them from their restaurants back home. The cookies rapidly spread across the country. By the late 1950s, an estimated 250 million fortune cookies were being produced each year by dozens of small Chinese bakeries and fortune cookie companies. One of the larger companies was Lotus Fortune in San Francisco. The founder, Edward Louie, invented an automatic fortune cookie machine. By 1960, fortune cookies had become such a commonality in American culture that they were even used in two presidential campaigns.

Prior to World War II, the cookie's history is murky. A number of immigrant families in California, mostly Japanese, have laid claim to introducing or popularizing the fortune cookie. Among them are the descendants of Makoto Hagiwara, a Japanese immigrant who oversaw the Japanese Tea Garden built in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in the 1890s. Visitors to the garden were served fortune cookies made by a San Francisco bakery, Benkyodo.

Early on, Chinese-owned restaurants discovered the cookies. Nakamachi speculates that Chinese-owned manufacturers began to take over fortune cookie production during World War II, when Japanese bakeries all over the West Coast closed as Japanese-Americans were rounded up and sent to internment camps.

Nakamachi, a folklore and history graduate student at Kanagawa University outside Tokyo, spent more than six years trying to establish the origin of the fortune cookie, much of that at National Diet Library (the Japanese equivalent of the Library of Congress). Shesorted through thousands of old documents and drawings. Traveling to temples and shrines across the country, and conducting interviews to piece together the history of fortune-telling within Japanese desserts.

She claims the evidence she found proves Japanese origins. Her prime pieces of evidence are centuries-old small family bakeries making obscure fortune cookie-shaped crackers by hand near a temple outside Kyoto. She also turned up many references to the cookies in Japanese literature and history. An exceptionally rare piece is a 1878 etching of a man making them in a bakery - decades before the first reports of American fortune cookies. The illustration was the kind of needle in a haystack discovery academics yearn for. "It's very rare to see artwork of a thing being made," Nakamachi said. "You just don't see that."

A 19th-century book of stories titled, "Moshiogusa Kinsei Kidan." Includes a tale with an apprentice grilling wafers in black irons over coals, (the same way they are made in Hogyokudo, and other present-day bakeries today) A sign above him reads "tsujiura senbei" (Japanese for "fortune crackers") and next to him are tubs filled with little round shapes — the tsujiura senbei themselves. The book, story and illustration are all dated 1878.

Around 3 billion fortune cookies are made each year... almost all are in the United States. Wonton Food is the world’s largest manufacturer of fortune cookies, sells tens of millions of cookies each year. The crisp cookies wrapped around fortunes have spread around the world. They are served in Chinese restaurants in Britain, Mexico, Italy, France and beyond (but don't be surprised if you don't see them in China). A little cookie created by Japanese, popularized by the Chinese, and enjoyed by all.

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