SILVER SPRING – Here’s where the cookie crumbles — you’d think Chinese fortune cookies and Lunar New Year would be a lucky match. Nope.
Those little half-moon confections are as American as apple pie.
It seems so natural: During the 15-day observance of the holiday that began Sunday, Asian-Americans seek a new year of luck and fortune. But the fortune cookie – a dessert mostly associated with Chinese food – is an American tradition expected by diners in Chinese restaurants.
“If I don’t get my fortune cookie, I’m like, ‘Where’s my cookie!'” said Asian Bistro Cafe patron Kari Hurlston, 38, of Washington.
Although fortune cookies are largely exported from China, the fortune cookie has not succeeded in Asia.
“Fortunes are a Western concoction,” said Rebecca McGinnis of the Confucius Institute, which promotes the study of Chinese language and culture at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Fortune cookie historians cannot pinpoint the exact date the cookie was invented and who created it but some popular theories say a Cantonese immigrant invented message-filled cookies in 1916. Another theory is that Makoto Hagiwara, caretaker of San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden, created the light waffle dessert in 1907.
Maryland has its own homegrown cookie maker: Lucky Fortune Cookie factory. The Jessup-based cookie manufacturer can produce almost 64 million fortune cookies a year, although that’s a fraction of what New York-based Wonton Food Inc. bakes up, about 4 million cookies a day.
Lucky serves wholesale clients scattered through Maryland, the District, Virginia and Philadelphia.
At Asian Bistro Cafe in Silver Spring, manager Ed Wang, 50, of Rockville, cracks open a dessert cookie.
On one side, the paper reads: “When things go wrong, don’t go with them.” On the other side are lucky numbers and Chinese translations of the word, jellies.
Cookie makers like to teach people how to speak Chinese, suggest lucky numbers for the lottery and give simple direction for life, Wang said. The “fortunes” are more affirmative than they used to be, he said, so “people don’t get upset.”
“I think fortune cookies are great. I look forward to the fortune cookie and the little positive note at the end of meal,” said Asian Bistro diner Kelley O’Connor, 22, of Bethesda, adding that fortune cookies are great for socializing as well.
“Everybody always wants to hear what your fortune is,” she said.
Although the fortune cookie itself is not considered auspicious, the Chinese live life in search of continual health, wealth and happiness.
“The Chinese always believe in good fortune and good luck,” said Alan Cheung, executive director of the Confucius Institute.
Many Chinese follow the Chinese zodiac signs, McGinnis said, and many also believe in number associations.
“You avoid the number four like a plague,” she said. “It’s like the Western concept of the number 13.”
The number 8 is so lucky that people in China pay for license plates with that number. The combination of 6 and 8 is also good, meaning “blessing to flow to you”, McGinnis said.
“It’s not so much about superstition than wishing positives to people,” Cheung said.
The real new year’s traditions — those not manufactured for U.S. consumption — extend to housekeeping and color choices.
Families must clean their houses thoroughly to expel ill-fortune and welcome a promising future.
White, the color of death, should never be worn during the New Year celebration. Red, however, is considered lucky and is used in decorations, gift-wrap and clothing.
“We have a saying here,” Cheung said. “‘I’d rather be lucky than smart.’ Fortune is better.”