The Prophetic Power of Fortune Cookies

I picked up a bug on a recent trip and after fighting it for several days, I got full-on sick.  You know how it goes: one minute you’re feeling vaguely under the weather and the next you’re weak, coughing, alternating between fever and chills, and generally praying for death.

My throat was feeling like I’d eaten ground glass, so I had to get the one thing that I love most when I’m sick: extra spicy Thai tom yum soup. Tom yum is a hot and sour soup that’s filled with herbal goodness and lots and lots of peppers to break up congestion.  I love it.

When I finished with my tom yum soup, I turned to my fortune cookie.  “You have great patience,” it told me.  I was quite disappointed.  First of all, that’s not a fortune.  And secondly, it could not be more wrong.

It did get me thinking about fortune cookies though.  Over the years they seem to have moved away from fortunes and towards more pithy sayings.

The ubiquitous dessert at most Asian restaurants were created in the United States in the late 1800s.  There is a lot of dispute whether Japanese immigrants or Chinese immigrants first came up with the idea; many believe that Japanese-Americans first came up with the idea of a fortune wrapped in a bland cookie, and that when Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II Chinese-Americans picked up the business.

Whatever happened, they are definitely an American creation, although the idea for fortune cookies appears to be based on omikuji, fortune slips that were dispensed at temples and shrines in Japan in exchange for a small offering.

There are about 3 billion fortune cookies produced every year, mostly for the U.S., although they have spread to other countries over the years.

Fortune cookies used to be mostly written by two guys, who were selected primarily for their ability to write in English.  There were a finite number of fortunes in use and, as I remembered, they used to be actual fortunes.  They often began with the phrase “Confucius say” but that was phased out as people became more sensitive to racist and religious stereotypes.  And, for the most part, the actual sayings of Confucius were about things like piety, virtue and governance, not really exciting fortune cookie fodder.

The evolution of fortune cookies into sayings also reflects changing times.  Americans preferred the more positive messages, so some of the doom-and-gloom messages from early cookies went away.  As society evolved, fortunes became more and more difficult to use in a non-offensive way and fortune cookie companies were overrun with complaints about the content of fortunes.  I was pretty shocked to hear this. Sincere question: who has the time and energy to complain about fortunes?

Variations of “You will meet a handsome man” was a common fortune, but that was offensive to a variety of people, like married women, hetero men and religious folks.

Fortunes alluding to taking trips or coming into money were also offensive to some people, depending on what their perspective was.  There were countless complaints about people receiving the “long trip” fortune right before they died, or others thinking that money was actually coming, and making decisions based on that.

Other fortunes were unintentionally offensive to those who were big or small or had physical disabilities.

Trying to draft a fortune that was appropriate for all genders, sexual orientations, religious affiliations, ages and body types became impossible. In the end, the cookie companies had to move away from fortunes and towards the pithy and positive phrases which, while less fun, are less likely to offend others.

It’s interesting to note that for cookies produced for Asian countries the fortunes are more pragmatic and less happy.

As for us, our fortune cookies are clearly in the “happy thoughts” and what I think of as “grandma wisdom” categories:

“Dance like no one is watching”

“You’re never too old to learn”

“Courtesy is contagious”

“Have a beautiful day”

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