The largest fortune-cookie factory in the world isn't in China, it isn't even in Asia - it's in Queens, New York, where the Wonton Food Company mixes, fills, bakes and wraps more than 3 million of these prophetic little meal-enders each day.
Only the occasional waft of burnt caramel hints that this factory, on a quiet road beside a cemetery, is even a bakery. The peeling paint and battered brickwork of the exterior belie the buzzing and spotless production line where white-coated workers pump out cookies so fast they can almost keep up with demand.
Sales manager Richard Leung is a proud, charming tour guide, handing out net caps and chatting loudly with staff. But the first stop he makes is in a quiet corner of the factory. It is here, far from the humming machinery, the silos of sugar and flour, that the main ingredient of the fortune cookies stand: spools of paper printed with the fortune that the cookies, however tasty, are just a vehicle to carry.
It is with its fortune that the fate of each cookie begins, and Wonton Food has amassed more than 4,000 over the two decades it's been in existence. Leung explains that the selection of 1,000 sayings being printed is changed every three months. As to who writes them, he's vague - "Students and freelance writers mostly" - perhaps because the fortune-writing process is more prosaic than psychic. As one who now makes his living as a journalist recalls, the first time his words earnt him a wage was in response to a small ad he saw in the New York Times. "They were looking for funny writers for fortune cookies, so I submitted 20 one-liners," he laughs. "They bought three and sent me a cheque for $6... I started to eat at Chinese restaurants all the time, hoping to open a cookie and find one of mine. Of course, I never did."
"Recently, we've slowed down a little commissioning new sayings," says Leung, who admits "there are only so many ways to wish good health and great prosperity."
But Wonton Food has wised up to more profitable ways of making a fortune from its predictions, inking a deal with an on-line discounter to produce slips touting how to "Save a fortune at Half.com". As Leung realises, the cookies are a perfect advertising medium - after all, the first thing anyone does after cracking open the biscuit is pore over the paper. But the deal made news - and restaurateurs angry - when confused diners assumed the discounts were on their food.
It isn't only big business that wants to customise cookies. A few months ago, a bachelor who asked Leung to bake an engagement ring into a biscuit stopped by to oversee the production of his proposal. Leung chuckles at how * carefully he and his team watched the diamond-stuffed cookie on the conveyor belt to avoid any expensive confusion. He's even switched prediction slips for folded $5 bills, producing dozens of guaranteed good fortunes for a Chinese New Year-themed party.
Whatever the filling, from gems to pearls of wisdom (naturally printed using food-safe ink), the cookies come in one of only four flavours; while vanilla and chocolate are popular, Leung admits, citrus is the top seller, quickly taking over when Chinese restaurants started serving orange segments at the end of a meal (the fourth flavour is a Neopolitan ice-cream-style tricolour cookie).
The biscuit batter is a mixture of just flour, water, sugar and oil, plus a little lecithin for texture. Gleaming stainless-steel pipes carry the vast volumes of ingredients from their silos into a massive mixing bowl, and once beaten, the biscuit batter ribbons along the walls of the warehouse through a network of piping to each of the 13 baking-and-folding machines stacked side by side on the factory floor.
Wonton Food fiercely guards the secrets of how its cookie-folding contraptions work, and even has its own on-site mechanics who build and maintain them to prevent baking-industry espionage. Essentially, the batter is squirted in triple doses on to hotplates that resemble traffic lights; these then trundle through an oven to be partially cooked. While still warm and rubbery, the biscuit discs are removed from the heat, and a paper slip slapped on to each; they are then folded by what look like nimble, industrial-issue knitting needles. Finally, the fortune-filled cookie passes through a hot-air chamber to complete the cooking process; and so is still warm when it whizzes off the line, wrapped in filmy Cellophane.
From batter to biscuit takes only five minutes and the first time human hands are involved is to box up the cookies for shipment. The brittle biscuits have a shelf life of up to nine months and, though Wonton Food's largest customers are wholesalers and supermarkets in the US, it also ships worldwide. In Europe, the country with the biggest yen is Greece, where 2,000 cases are sent each month; as for Britain, Wonton Food has just began supplying London restaurant Tiger Tiger with its own in-house brand.
Churning out thousands of biscuits wasn't always possible: in fact, automation in cookie cutting only arrived in the early 1970s, when an enterprising San Francisco baker called Edward Louie invented the automatic folding machine, complete with those nimble knitting needles. This advance enabled mass production at a level that hand wrapping had never allowed; and helped the cookie spread to Chinese restaurants everywhere.
Aside from Louie's milestone, the history of the fortune cookie is as mysterious as the predictions each contains. The one certainty is that the first one appeared in - of all places - California, around 100 years ago. Whose idea it was to bake these treats is hotly disputed.
Of the two very different men who compete for the title of Father of the Fortune Cookie, the better-known is Makota Hagiwara, who ran the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Axed from his position by a racist mayor, he was quickly reinstated thanks to widespread populist protest and it's said that he then cooked up the biscuits as a whimsical way of delivering thank-you notes to friends who'd championed his cause.
The rival claim comes from David Jung, a Cantonese immigrant to Los Angeles. Jung's supporters say he produced the first cookies there, in the aftermath of the First World War, as quirky treats for the mass of unemployed workers he saw milling around the local streets. Some claim this fit of philanthropic largesse was inspired by the ancient Chinese tradition of sending birth announcements in crescent-shaped biscuits; others trot out the legend that message-filled moon-shaped cakes were used by the Chinese resistance to communicate during Mongol occupations in the Middle Ages (apparently, the barbarian hordes had ample stomach for pillage and plunder, but not for the cake's delicate, lotus-paste filling).
The Jung and Hagiwara camps haggled over whether the fortune cookie owed a debt to racist mayors or raping Mongols, until going to the tongue-in-cheek Court of Historical Review in the early 1980s. This San Francisco tradition is presided over by a real Supreme Court judge, but adjudicates only on the absurd - past cases have included ruling on the inventor of the Martini and whether the Grinch really stole Christmas (he didn't). Despite the Jungians' best efforts, the judge - perhaps inevitably - ruled in favour of local boy, Hagiwara.
Hagiwara's historic triumph emphasises the oddest thing about fortune cookies: they're about as Chinese as chop suey - in other words, not at all. Leung confesses conspiratorially that some restaurants in New York's Chinatown stash cookies simply to meet impromptu demands from non-Chinese diners. It's a lesson Wonton Food learnt the hard way. The company tried to kick-start the craze in mainland China, opening a factory there in the early 1990s; it closed within two years due to lack of demand. Still today, not a single case of cookies from Queens ever makes it to Asia.
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