Crystal Cookie

Do you believe in fortune cookies? Do you seek out the thin strip of paper that is hidden inside the cookie served with your bill in a Chinese restaurant? And do you then try to interpret your life around the prophecy? I, for one, stopped opening the oyster shell of fortune cookies when I discovered, time and again, that the contents were pearls of fairly-obvious wisdom. However, I made an exception when I visited the birthplace of the fortune cookie.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the modern fortune cookie was invented in California and is almost unknown in China. This is not surprising since dessert is not a part of traditional Chinese cuisine. However, legend has it that fourteenth century Chinese soldiers used to smuggle messages into mooncakes to coordinate the overthrow of Mongolian invaders, which eventually led to the establishment of the Ming dynasty.

The true origin of the confectionery has been called a mystery shrouded in an enigma wrapped in a cookie! The most commonly accepted version (and the one promoted by the mock Court of Historical Review) is that it was invented by the gardener who built the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco. He used to insert tasteful thank-you messages in tasteless flour cookies (modelled after the traditional Japanese senbei rice-wafer) and gift them to his loyal patrons for their role in rallying for his reappointment after being fired by the city's anti-Japanese mayor.

Churning out ten-word maxims can be a thankless job. New Yorker magazine once profiled such a writer in the Long Island plant which is the world's largest manufacturer of fortune cookies. An engineering and business graduate from Columbia University, he had been racking his brains everyday for over twenty years, using inspirations from sources as diverse as the I-Ching and subway graffiti. Some of his aphorisms have made it into the Unix programme fortune, which displays random messages from a database of quotations. One of the "fortunes" in the software collection states cynically, "The fortune cookie programme defuses project tensions."

To return to my open-air experience at the Japanese Tea Garden last month, I was persuaded by my friend to read my fortune. It said, "What you are searching for is right in front of you." I looked up to find a plucky pigeon strutting on the table right in front of me and finishing off the remains of my fortune cookie!

You know that what you eat you are,
But what is sweet now, turns so sour.
George Harrison, Savoy Truffle

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