It happened slowly, insidiously, a withering away of an inalienable right a harsh rent in the very fabric of American life. We relaxed our vigilance, turned our backs for just an instant, and what happened?

They took the fortunes out of the fortune cookies.

Once, opening a fortune cookie was an enterprise full of daring. Who knew whot dangers lurked inside those funny twisted pastries, so innocent on their special little plate? An especially intriguing fortune might make your entire day, and I for one would keep favorites in a tiny corner of my wallet, saving them for sustenance on especially bleak and melancholy days.

"A happy romance for you shortly" was one of my favorites, along with "You will improve your way of living." "You will overcome obstacles to achieve success" and the intriguing "A very small incident will shortly develop to your advantage." Even more intriguing was the slightly enigmatic "Tonight is yours, be hold." Obviously not prophecies to rank with those of Nostradamus, but I never said I was hard to please.

In recent years, though, I've noticed myself adding next to nothing to my precious store. Instead of fortunes, those little cookies, a thousand curses on their temerity, are giving me homilies, savings and allegedly sage advise: "Make every minute count." "Old age makes us wise and more foolish." "Time heals all wounds." If I wanted to have lunch with my mother. I would've asked her.

Though not all fortune cookies have turned traitor, the trend has increased over the past five years and many of the more perspicacious local Chinese restaurant owners have noticed it.

"The sayings are getting much too insipid, too didactic, people want a fortune, not something to tell them how to behave," says Aline Berman, owner of the Court of the Mandarins, while Jan Shaw, manager of the Yenching Palace in Alexandria, says: "Often they have officious sayings, 'You should do this, you should do that.'"

Though restauranteurs admit to the change, no one seems to know what caused it. Some say it's because the cookie manufacturers are taking the path of least resistance, others that many diners really prefer it that way. Jan Shaw, for instance, says a woman came up to her clutching a "It is better to make love than war" fortune and said she was going to keep in for her husband.

To Peter Ball, manager of Trudie Ball's Empress, the cause is more sinister still: "I heard somewhere that somebody got in trouble putting those crazy real frotunes in there. Something came true and it wasn't very nice."

Almost all Washington restaurants get their fortune cookies from New York, where they are still folded by hand, one by one, just like in the old days.

One of the largest of the New York firms, to the tune of 10 million cookies-plus turned out per year, is Key Key. The company's president, Philip Leong, says that while he still believes in fortunes that are real fortunes, he too is thinking of going into proverbs.

"You can't write that many fortunes, I guess," he says by way of explanation."It's either 'You're going to meet up with something nice' or 'Have a healthy year or 'prosperity ahead.' Things like that."

Leong has personal experience with just those problems because it's his wife, Margaret, who does the fortune writing. Or maybe the word should be 'did'.

She's been doing it for so many years, since 1950, that she gave it up already," Leong relates. "She says 'You've got plenty already.'"

Thus pass the glories of the world.