Daily Archives: January 31, 2010

Divining Destiny from a Year’s Worth of Fortune Cookies

Growing up an Italian–American on the west side of Cleveland, Ohio, I was wholly satisfied with my mother Mary’s glorious homemade tomato sauce, pasta, meatballs, and lasagna. As I was a third-generation American, our family’s traditional Italian diet had been augmented by New World culinary classics like steak, hamburgers, corn on the cob, and Kraft macaroni cheese – with a few exotic forays into Swiss steak and French toast. But, for the first 17 years of my life, Chinese food was essentially off my gastronomical radar.

As for fortune cookies, the first time they were brought to my attention was through the 1966 film, The Fortune Cookie, directed by Billy Wilder: the first movie to pair Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. As far as I can remember, the film had nothing to do with fortune cookies, but it did have something to do with Cleveland, which made an impression on me.

The opening scenes in The Fortune Cookie were shot at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium on October 31, 1965, during a game between the Browns and Minnesota Vikings. Lemmon plays a cameraman who gets injured when the Browns’ star running back, “Boom Boom” Jackson (modeled on the great Jim Brown) slams into him on the sidelines, sending Jack’s character to the hospital. The rest of the plot involves his scheming brother-in-law, played by Matthau, who engineers an insurance scam by getting Lemmon to pretend he’s paralyzed. I can’t remember if they ate Chinese food in Billy Wilder’s hilarious movie, but by my junior year in high school, I still hadn’t experimented with Eastern cuisine beyond nibbling some Chow Mein noodles.

Of course, while I had yet to enjoy a fortune cookie, I had been reading fortunes connected to a staple foodstuff for years. For as long as I could remember, Bazooka Joe comics always featured a fortune. In fact, Jay Lynch wrote many of these fortunes. (Maybe Jay will provide us with more detail on the evolution of fortunes in Bazooka Joe comics. Maybe he won’t. Jay is a mysterious man.)

I came late to Chinese food – and fortune cookies. It wasn’t until my junior year at Cleveland Central Catholic High School that I discovered the joys of Chinese cuisine. It had become a CCC theatre tradition to go to Chung Wah on the near east side of Cleveland, where my favorite teachers, Ellen Fasko (art) and Mary Ann Zampino (theatre), introduced me to the Cantonese food served there. I loved the atmosphere at Chung Wah, but I was ambivalent about the relatively bland Cantonese dishes. I dug the fortune cookies, though. They were tasty, and it was cool that there were fortunes inside.

The author (what's with that goatee?), Ellen Fasko, and my best high school buddy, Gary Swisher at Chung Wah on a break from freshman year at college. (1976)

35 years later, I am a dedicated Chinese food fan, though I’m still not big on Cantonese. I prefer hot and spicy Schzechaun dishes — and my passion for Thai food is rivaled only by my blood-bond to my mom’s Italian menu. I eat Thai food at least once or twice (and sometimes three) times a week. I also frequent Panda Express. I’ve cracked open quite a few fortune cookies, and over the years, I’ve thought quite a bit about the fortunes inside them.

Here, then, is a look a year’s worth of fortune cookies that I’ve collected. What do they say about me? And what do they say about the largely unsung and unexamined art of fortune cookie fortune writing?

“Long life is in store for you.”

This is a classic, all-purpose crowd-pleaser. Who can possibly be disappointed with the prediction of a long life? It’s the kind of fortune you keep in your wallet for a few weeks. You may not necessarily believe in the power of fortune cookie voodoo, but such an encouraging omen can’t hurt. This is a real fortune, folks. It makes a bold prediction. It goes out on a limb.

But I must caution weight watchers. No fortune cookie fortune has a chance to come true unless you’ve consumed the whole cookie. In this case, a long life is worth a few extra calories, isn’t it?

“You are original and creative.”

It may be nice to read such a compliment after your meal – but this is certainly NOT a fortune: it’s simply an observation. They are not called observation cookies. In this particular example, it can be argued that the cookie was correct in its assessment of my artistic nature. However, this next fortune illustrates the pitfalls of the observation cookie.

“You have a quiet and unobtrusive nature.”

Quiet? Unobtrusive? Sorry, but this is just not me. Not only is this NOT a fortune – it’s not even a correct observation. It’s a total waste of calories. I would much rather have gotten the weakest, most vague fortune — something like, “You will someday have a good experience.” Fortune cookie bakers should end this practice of making blunt assessments about the reader’s personality, and stick to post-meal prognostication.

“You will be rewarded for your patience and understanding.”

This is better – but only by half. It starts with a legitimate fortune (the prospect of reward) and closes with a snap judgment of my personality. But what happens if I’m neither patient nor understanding? Does that disqualify me from getting the predicted reward? The whole thing is a mess: too many moving parts. Why not simply state, “You will soon be rewarded” – and let the reader decide why he’s getting a reward. Problems arise whenever a fortune cookie strays from the role of sugary soothsayer.

“Soon, you’ll have a chance at a profitable transaction.”

All I have is a “chance”? What kind of limp fortune is this? To call the fortune writer cautious in this instance, is to be too kind. Whoever wrote this mealy-mouthed fortune has no faith in himself – or his reader. He promises nothing. Risks nothing. Says nothing. The word “profitable” is another dodge: a mere suggestion of how lucrative this possible transaction might be. The whole exercise is meaningless. It’s like Charlie Brown getting a fortune that reads, “Soon, you’ll have a chance at successfully kicking Lucy’s football.”

“Luck is with you now, act upon your instincts.”

This is not really a fortune, folks — it’s advice. Fortune cookies are no more advice cookies than they are observation cookies. This one combines an observation (“luck is with you”) with some advice. But, even here, the fortune cookie writer lets me down. Does he suggest something specific I might do to capitalize on my fleeting, momentary bit of luck? No. He just punts the ball to me: “act upon your instincts.” But he doesn’t know a damn thing about me! What if my instinct is to squander my luck? Now, I’d like to think I’m confident enough about my instincts to cash in on a lucky moment, but a non-fortune like this requires too much introspection.

“You will win success in whatever you adopt.”

Bingo! Here you go. This is what I’m looking for when I crack open a fortune cookie. I’ve just eaten a great, hot, spicy meal, I’m feeling full, and I’m in the mood for some good news about my future. I’m not looking for a philosophical brainteaser or well-intentioned advice. I just want a satisfying fortune clearly stated. And this one opens great (“You will win success”) – and closes even better (“in whatever you adopt”). I’m a winner, no matter what I choose to do! I can’t miss. In fact, I’m giving the waiter an extra five percent!

“7 10 18 26 32 37”

Many fortune cookie bakers have been printing lottery numbers on the back of their fortunes. I’m not a lottery player, so I’m not sure how to feel about this. I suppose for lottery players, this is value-added. Do these cookie bakers get a kickback from the state for encouraging the purchase of lottery tickets? And, if I don’t use them in the lottery, do these numbers suggest anything about my future?

The numbers do suggest a little about my past: I wrestled in high school at 126 and 132 pounds. But, other than that, these numbers mean nothing to me. Perhaps if you’re a numerologist, the numbers on the back say more to you than the words on the front of the fortune? I just don’t know…

“Your love life will be happy and harmonious.”

This is a great fortune. And, in my case, I firmly believe it will come true. Thanks to my wonderful wife, Victoria, my love life is happy and harmonious now – and shall no doubt be so for the rest of my days. But it’s nice to be reassured of that after a splendid lunch. Now, I imagine if you got this fortune in the middle of a rocky divorce, you might wince, suffering a pang of painful irony. However, someone in that sad situation might also see this fortune as a promise that his hopes for a happy love life will someday be fulfilled. It’s a fortune that can save lives. For me, it’s confirmation of what I already know.

And, continuing upon this theme…

“You and your love one will be happy in your life together.”

Gotta love it: more confirmation of life-long happiness with Victoria. This is a truly classic fortune – especially as it contains the kind of typo (“your love one”) that used to be a frequent feature of the fortune cookie. Back in my Chung Wah days, the fortunes were full of grammatical and spelling errors – owing to the fact that, for so many cookie bakers and fortune writers, English was, at most, a second language. But no matter how they mangled syntax and spelling in those days, they never forgot the fundamental mission of the fortune cookie. Would that all of today’s fortune cookie fortune writers respected the tradition established by their forbears: a delicious dessert packed with a prophecy.


Filed under Random Commentary, Truth