My buddy Kenny Yee wants to be the Barack Obama of the Chinese food industry -- purveying fortune cookies you can believe in.
Last week, in anticipation of the Chinese New Year (which is today), I sat down with Yee and some other friends at the Hop Woo Restaurant on Broadway, got hopped up on tea and started the grueling process of figuring out the ingredients of a good contemporary fortune.
The last time I wrote about Kenny, he was presiding over the Miss Chinatown pageant and running his family's noodle business. But in March of last year, he struck out on his own and bought one of L.A.'s four Chinese fortune cookie factories. I hate to break it to you if you don't already know, but fortune cookies aren't from China. Depending on which story you believe, they were invented right here in Los Angeles by a Chinese-born noodle manufacturer, or in San Francisco by a Japanese immigrant who tended the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. Either way, they're a California invention that dates back to before World War I -- classical Californiana.
Despite this august history, and their ubiquity in the American Chinese food business, fortune cookies don't get a lot of respect. I'd bet that it's been awhile since cracking one open made you ponder your future, your place in the universe or even made you smile. It's not that the notion has lost its novelty. (And God knows, the cookies themselves -- little folded pancakes of sugar, flour and eggs -- never get really stale.) Even if it's been awhile since you've had a fortune any better than "You have a good head for matters of money," you probably can't resist opening the next one that arrives with your check at your favorite Chinese restaurant. We all hope for signs of good fortune.
But for years now, it's been the diners who have been bringing a smile to the fortune cookie rather than the other way around. When I was a kid, after a Chinese meal my father never failed to pretend that his fortune read, "Help, I'm trapped in a Chinese fortune cookie factory!" At some point in the last few decades, to spice up the fortune cookie experience, teenagers started to add phrases like "in bed" to the end of every recitation of their cookie fortunes. "You will attend an unusual party -- in bed." "Rome was not built in a day. Be patient -- in bed." You get the point.
When Kenny bought his fortune cookie company, he inherited an inventory of roughly 100,000 little pearls of wisdom. And most of them, he thought, were out of date, irrelevant, a lost opportunity -- bad for business, worse for karma. "With this cookie," he told me, brandishing a folded, stuffed example, "I've got five seconds of face time with someone. I don't want them to just chuck the paper aside. I want to make fortunes that inspire people, that have spark, that make them laugh or want to be or want something they don't have."
That's a tall order for a little cookie, but, in hard times, people do look for little signs that their luck is going to shift. This past (solar) New Year's Eve, I took it as a good omen that I had the rare chance to see Venus, Jupiter and Mercury in the western sky just after sunset. I'd be only too thrilled to open a fortune cookie that told me that economic recovery was somewhere around the corner. Magical thinking, I know, but I'd still stick it in my wallet.
It's not easy coming up with fortunes for this secular, cynical age, and maybe I wasn't the right guy to try. My favorite prospects were more sarcastic than they were inspirational, and some of them had an implied "or else" at the end. In a nod to Bob Barker, I came up with "Please spay and neuter your pets." And trying to capture the green zeitgeist, I suggested "Reduce your carbon imprint. Recycle this fortune." But I don't think this is what Kenny had in mind.
It wasn't until I was driving home from Chinatown that it struck me how universal our task really was. We've all pretty much got five seconds of face time with most people we encounter in the world. We'd be, well, fortunate if we could figure out how to inspire them to be more hopeful about tomorrow.