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.

14 Comments

Filed under Random Commentary, Truth

14 responses to “Divining Destiny from a Year’s Worth of Fortune Cookies

  1. Fat Dave

    Dude-

    Good stuff. Are you familiar with dirty fortune cookies? Back when we did the Maryland Festival, we had a regular Chinese place, one night they felt comfortable around us to bring out the dirty fortune cookies. They were things like-‘you a motherfucker.’ Really, nothing clever, just curse words and bad grammar.

    The waiters all thought this was the funniest thing in the world. Very weird scene man.

    Do you know the bit about adding the phrase, ‘in bed’ at the end of a fortune? Puts a new spin on some of your examples.

    Fat Dave

  2. Jerry G

    Fortune Cookies = the best
    Observation Cookies = not as good but still about something relating to you.

    What I always get, and hate, from our local eatery, Chen Hing (my childhood shop was called Ho Wah, much better name!) = SAYING COOKIES.

    The chinese version of “a bird in the hand is worth 2 in the bush.” OK … but what does that have to do with me!

    Almost as funky is the unrealistic fortune, like one I got years ago that I still keep in my wallet.

    “You should be able to make money and hold on to it.”

    Huh?

    Not in this lifetime!

    JG

  3. Kate Tabor

    The fortune taped to my computer right now: Others enjoy your radiance. (Why, thank you -complimentary in all senses of the word.)

    Favorite all time fortune: You long to see the great pyramids in Egypt. (Good to know, yes?)

  4. Stewart Figa

    Paul: I’m loving the blogs! Please keep it up and keep sharing. It’s nice to be reminded of the warm hearted, erudite, and wittily entertaining brilliance of Paul Barrosse. Your tribute to the Crawfords was touching and spot on; you were able to put in words (and illustrations) an extraordinary phenomena that only some of us are privy to.
    “Divining Destiny from a Year’s Worth of Fortune Cookies” reminded me that Billy Wilder is one of my favorite film directors; he delivers humor with heart, just as you do.

    • Thanks, Stewart!

      You are too kind to this author.

      But, the fact is, artists like the Crawfords and Billy Wilder can’t be over-praised.

      As for Billy Wilder — it’s amazing how many great movies he made in the course of his long career. Comedy, drama, action — he did it all, working with the best actors around. You could do a Billy Wilder film festival on TCM, with a classic of his every day, and it would run for a solid month.

  5. Stewart Figa

    A Billy Wilder film festival could only be impressive and inspiring. My particular favorite Wilder film is “The Apartment” (which is no doubt an inspiration for “Mad Men”), followed by “Some Like It Hot”. He was able to have his characters play over the edge of “broad” and yet would still have real honesty.

    I remember when we were young men you had the great idea that we should put together a production of “Stalag 17”. Too bad we never did! Wilder’s treatment of that was unforgettable, his take surely informed by his Polish, Austrian and German backgrounds and having family members who perished in Auschwitz.

    • Fat Dave

      Did you know there was talk in the late 50’s about Billy Wilder directing a comeback movie for the Marx Brothers? It would have been in a Duck Soup vein, but Chico’s death put the kibosh on the whole idea

      • Stewart Figa

        I thought the talk was about Billy Wilder directing a Stooges comeback but CURLY’S death put the kibosh on that. Wilder refused to work with Shemp…

  6. There’s nothing like a lively Three Stooges-Billy Wilder discussion! It’s sad that such a classic collaboration did not come to fruition. Now, if Jack Lemmon had replaced Curly, maybe the film would have been made.

  7. My most recent fortune cookie?

    “Confucius say; top of ladder nice place… But very lonesome.”

    What the…?

  8. Paul A. Valley

    Paul, A friend of mine posted a cryptic photo of a building in Facebook with no explanation (cryptic to some maybe) but I immediately recognized the pic as Chug Wah! I too was involved with theater way back then (Parma Sr. H.S. Stage Crew 71-74) or SCI (Stage Crew Incorporated) as we called it. When I graduated H.S. I worked a while at Green-briar a local theater. It was blast! After “a great run” we would strike the set and 5-30 of us would go to Chug Wah’s and we had the best of times. I wish to post the photo you have here as it’s the only picture I could find of the interior of Chung Wah. I dearly miss this gem. The best part You could walk in at 2:00 am and find a wedding party in one corner; a street gang in another corner; a pimp with some of his girls in another corner and around the back wall by the john, well that’s where the mafia hung out. We would take over the entire middle of the restaurant from the cash register to the door! What was cool about this place was that it reminded me of a watering hole in Africa. The one place where everyone got along and came for the same reason, the Great Food! We would order Cantonese for 30. The cloth table cloths, the real china and good silverware were always used for everyone. The shrimp egg rolls will never be duplicated. They were stuffed with 3-4 shrimp in every one. The Won ton soup man was that good. And we always came home with left overs. Believe it or not most of us went into radio, TV, Theater or something that supplied these industries. All of us are still friends and still support the arts. Thanks for the photo and the memory!

    Take Care,

    Paul

    • You may certainly use the photo, circa 1976. I was involved in theatre at Cleveland Central Catholic and it was my theatre director who introduced me to Chung Wah. It was my first experience with Chinese food, and while I wasn’t a lover of the Cantonese cuisine that Chung Wah featured, it did open up my palate to the hot and spicy Szechuan and Thai foods I gobble up to this day. Thanks for those memories of the scene at Chung Wah. Funny how so many of us West Siders made our way to Chung Wah!

      • Paul A. Valley

        Hi Paul,
        Thank you for making all of that come rushing back! We had such a good time there. BTW my palate heated up tool! I always ask for extra hot sauce! My stage interests back then involved the techie stuff. We were always making special effects and remote controls for things on stage, (especially Flash Pots). I later became a broadcast engineer and provided field service for radio, cable and TV station equipment. Still later I started my own firm Valley Video! I designed and put together the James Bond kind of boardrooms for major companies in the 80s & 90s. You know the ones with the touch screens and moving walls and secret passageways. Lots of fun. Then after 911 the company stalled and I went to work for one of my clients. I now work for the Cleveland Zoo as their techie. My closest brush with fame would have to be All Ruck. He was my age in my grade at high school and was on stage when I was in the booth! Our cast parties were throw in Hinkley off of the ledges with Boones Farm, (remember that fruity stuff)? Anyway, I’ll bet you remember Al’s first big roll was the sidekick to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the kid who’s father had the red sports car? We still cheer when we see Al on the screen in a staring sitcom roll or as a Star Trek Captain (even if it was brief). But now I am going to claim to have another (although distant), brush with fame with you! Our Chung Wah connection! But I swear we may have crossed paths before. I have seen you in many things as an actor but your younger picture looks way too familiar. Did you ever work any of the other local theaters around Cleveland before making it big in la-la-land? If so what rolls? I know it’s a long time ago…

        I read more of your blog too. Are you still sailing? That sounds like fun. Just watch out for the pirates. I’ve heard they are real in the islands.

        Paul

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s