Did you ever wonder who thinks up those fortune cookie messages that say mysterious things like: "A hidden admirer desires you from afar?"
Is it done by computer? A wizened grandmother steeped in Confucian lore? A literary hack?
The chief writer of fortune cookie prose for the Peking Noodle Co. in Glassell Park is Donna Tong, a 30-year-old with a finance degree, who is secretary-treasurer of the family-owned business. And, after two years, Tong said, the glamour has crumbled considerably.
"It's very tough to come up with many different messages that don't say the same thing," said Tong, sitting at a desk overflowing with fortune cookies.
She keeps a computer list of about 500 messages that she updates at least once a year. Many are her own creations. Others are culled from generic lists that have made the rounds of fortune cookie makers for decades. Each message is printed and stuffed into hundreds of thousands of cookies.
About five Los Angeles companies make fortune cookies in volume, but few have steady message writers like Tong, said Tak Hamano, president of Umeda Rice Cake Co. in Los Angeles.
A cheerful woman with a wry sense of humor, Tong sometimes chafes at the limitations of writing for fortune cookies. Messages must be brief--no longer than one sentence--and stick to general topics. A typical example, she said, is: "Confidence will lead you on to success."
Tong said she feels most creative when composing custom messages that clients use for special events. Her favorites include: "The crew from '60 Minutes' will show up at your office for 'Just a few questions' " and "Having tax problems beats having money problems."
Often, Tong said, she has to weed out offensive messages.
One that caused indigestion among some Chinese restaurant patrons talked about inheriting money.
"It could mean you're coming into a fortune, but it could also mean that someone you know is going to die," Tong said.
Over the years, several customers have canceled cookie orders with her company because patrons grumbled about the fortunes, Tong said.
Restaurant owners say some patrons take fortune cookie messages quite seriously, complaining if they dislike the message and demanding a new cookie.
"Sometimes we do get complaints," confirmed Wayne Chan, manager of the Mandarin Cove restaurant in Los Angeles, speaking about fortune cookies in general. "The people are kind of joking, but they're serious about wanting another cookie."
For inspiration, Tong haunts libraries and Oriental bookstores. She looks through horoscope books. She eats at Chinese restaurants and cracks open other companies' cookies.
"There's not a lot out there," Tong concluded, about her search for fresh ideas.
Peking Noodle Co. turns out about 200,000 fortune cookies daily, besides making noodles and the flour skins used in egg rolls and won tons.
The factory sits along an industrial stretch of San Fernando Road and employs about 30 people. Tong works in a small upstairs office, filled with the aroma of baking cookies.
Downstairs, a half-dozen intricate machines squirt a doughy mixture of flour, sugar, eggs and shortening into round molds, which then slide into a large oven.
Once cooked, a mechanical hand plucks out the still-warm cookie and a paper message two inches long and one-quarter inch wide is placed on its flat, pancake-like surface. Another machine then folds the cookie twice and plops it onto a conveyor belt until it drops into a plastic bucket.
Tong wouldn't discuss profit figures but said business has more than doubled in the past five years. She attributed this to the rising popularity of fortune cookies, especially for promotional use by corporations.
For instance, McDonald's restaurants recently ordered 10 million fortune cookies from her company for a promotion, Tong said. McDonald's provided its own messages--which Tong printed--with sayings like "Have patience, the year holds great McPromise."
Her company also accepts orders as small as 200. For a St. Patrick's Day party last year, a caterer received a small quantity of cookies dyed green and inserted with old Irish sayings.
If business has boomed, so has competition. Today there are X-rated fortune cookies and gourmet cookies in amaretto and mandarin orange flavors.
Fortune 44 Wish Biscuits, whose cookies are found in groceries, features messages from Shakespeare and William Blake.
And a Philadelphia company makes Jewish fortune cookies with sayings like: "Eat, eat, You need strength to worry."
The origin of fortune cookies is a subject of debate. Some say the tradition dates from the 13th Century, when China was occupied by the Mongols. To outwit their conquerors, Chinese peasants were said to have sent military messages on rice paper concealed in steamed cakes.
According to Craig Claiborne's New York Times Food Encyclopedia, however, fortune cookies were a much later Sino-American invention. One belief is that a Presbyterian minister in the San Joaquin Valley first came up with the idea in 1818 to send good-will messages.
Another theory credits a former caretaker of the Japanese Gardens in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.
Regardless of their origins, one the cardinal rules of writing fortunes today is to stay upbeat, Tong said.
Love, happiness, good fortune and success are favorite topics. Personally, Tong said, she likes humorous and business-oriented messages, "because that's where my interests are."
Pulling a list from a desk drawer, she read off an example: "Confucius say successful person is one who recognized chance and took it."
Did Confucious really say that?
"Beats me," Tong admitted sheepishly.