Earlier this year, Christie's auction house offered for sale an unusual work of art -- a mountain of 10,000 fortune cookies stacked in the corner of a room. It was conceived by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, a Cuban-born "minimalist" who died in 1996. Other works in his oeuvre include a "carpet" of candies neatly packaged in cellophane, a photograph of an unmade bed and strings of faint light bulbs suspended from a ceiling or draped across a wall. The asking price for the cookie "installation": $600,000 to $800,000.
Vaunting the art, a Christie's executive conjectured that fortune cookies, with their cheerful adages, inject a measure of optimism into an often dismal world. It's a fascinating if pompous notion, but hardly one that would have occurred to me during my Brooklyn childhood in the 1930s, when my parents, brother and I gathered on Sunday evenings with uncles, aunts and cousins for supper at the Pearl Dragon, as our favorite Chinese restaurant was grandly titled. Catering to its heavily Jewish clientele, the restaurant disguised wonton as kreplach on the menu and only closed twice a year -- on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.
The gargantuan dinners ran the spectrum from egg drop soup, moo goo gai pan, chicken chow mein and shrimp in lobster sauce, to barbecued spareribs, pepper beef, fried noodles and bowls of steamed rice. But they always culminated with the ubiquitous fortune cookie. Over cups of fragrant jasmine tea, we would crack them open and gleefully recite their saccharin maxims: "Hard work reaps rewards," "You will ride the train to success," "Honesty is the best policy" and, of course, "Romance awaits you."
Subsequently, as I developed an interest in Chinese cuisine, I learned that fortune cookies are as American as apple pie a la mode. One version holds that they were invented in 1916 by a Los Angeles noodle manufacturer, David Jung, who purportedly drew his inspiration from a surreptitious practice reaching back to the 14th century, when the Mongols still ruled China.
Dissidents struggling to oust the "barbarians" communicated with each other by concealing messages inside "moon cakes," festival pastries typically filled with lotus seed paste. Thanks to their clever gimmick, they triumphed and founded the Ming dynasty. Jung, who was looking for items to expand his repertoire, figured that these buns could be Westernized.
Another account credits a wealthy Japanese landscape designer, Makoto Hagiwara. Clad in kimono and obi, Hagiwara is said to have served a variant of the fortune cookie, labeled tsujiura sembei, to the distinguished guests he had invited in 1914 to his elegant Japanese garden in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. He featured the treat again the following year at a glittering banquet for the city's dignitaries.
Whatever the truth, fortune cookies rapidly became a staple of both cheap chop suey joints and more upscale establishments throughout the country, just as they are today. The syrupy messages have been supplemented by Confucian analects, Daoist citations, Zen Buddhist mantras, Hindu vedas, Koranic sutras, Talmudic allusions and evangelical Christian exhortations. Those aimed at highbrows contain poetic quotations, literary references, philosophical ruminations and psychoanalytical prescriptions.
Imaginative entrepreneurs have discovered fresh markets for the cookies. Families use them to announce marriages, spouses to celebrate wedding anniversaries, lonely singles to seek mates, corporations to tout products, radicals to ventilate their protests, conservatives to decry liberals, politicians to propagate their platforms, pornographers to circulate raunchy anecdotes. A Texas mail-order firm specializes in homilies that "reinforce positive behavior in school children by providing a fun, mealtime reminder of specific issues."
To accommodate a variety of tastes, the cookies now come in lime, lemon, orange, mocha, chocolate and strawberry flavors. They are available for dieters, gourmets, cats and dogs. Some are kosher for Passover. There are even perverse "misfortune cookies," their gags contrived to cheer up the gloomy.
Initially they were crafted by hand in minuscule shops, but since the 1960s, the process has been industrialized. Most are now produced by the millions in huge plants whose ultramodern machines automatically mix the flour and sugar with water, lecithin, soybean oil and yellow dye, then bake, cut and carefully fold the wafers. Some are wrapped in red, the harbinger of good luck.
Globalization has stimulated their export around the world, complete with translated platitudes. Strangely, however, they are still invisible in China. In 1993, the Queens, N.Y.-based Wonton Food Company contracted to build and manage a cookie factory in Guangdong province. Consonant with China's stampede into free enterprise, the epigrams would glowingly promise great riches. But the ambitious venture soon faltered, possibly because traditional Chinese consumers prefer astrological signs, joss sticks, oracle bones and similarly esoteric devices as the most effective ways to forecast the future, and dismiss fortune cookies as an American frivolity.
After Gonzalez-Torres's construction failed to attract a buyer at the May auction, I suggested to my convivial friend Robert Wu, owner and chef of the Mandarin Palace on Connecticut Avenue, that he ought to bid for the spurned cookies. Their cost astounded him and, politely rejecting my suggestion as absurd, he told me that he routinely purchases them wholesale at a nickel apiece.
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