The Misunderstood Fortune Cookie

With the Olympics kicking off in China last week, we decided to take a look at an item that many Americans see as a symbol of Chinese culture: the fortune cookie.

These bite-sized desserts have become a staple of Chinese cuisine in the United States, doling out words of wisdom to thousands of restaurant-goers every day.

ABC News' Juju Chang visited the largest fortune cookie factory in the world -- Wonton Foods, based in Queens, N.Y., which churns out about 4.5 million cookies a day.

What goes into these sweet treats? A simple mix of flour, sugar and vanilla or citrus flavoring makes the batter.

On the assembly line, the mix is spread out, the fortunes inserted, and the cookie molded into its signature shape.

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Juju grabbed one fresh off the griddle. "It's still hot! Mmmm … smells so good." She read the fortune: "'A romantic evening awaits you…' Not bad!"

Just whose job is it to come up with all those bits of wisdom? Wonton's Derrick Wong says that for them, a retired history professor in New York leads a team of freelance writers who come up with fresh fortunes.

"We have about over 10,000 fortunes in the data bank, and we rotate about 1,500," said Wong.

But the origin of the fortune cookie itself is a more complicated story. We turned to Jenny Lee, author of "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles," to help us figure out their patrilineage.

Lee's take on the matter? "A lot of Americans think that what we're eating here is 'Chinese,' but in fact most Chinese people don't recognize things like beef and broccoli or fortune cookies or General Tao chicken or even egg rolls."

Could it be that fortune cookies aren't even served in China?

"They're not served in China," said Lee. "As a matter of fact, I actually brought a bunch of fortune cookies to China and gave them to Chinese people, who were very confused."

That's right -- the fortune cookie is not Chinese at all. They were actually invented in Japan, and then migrated to U.S. Japanese restaurants in California in the early 1900's. Chinese restaurants started mass-producing them across the U.S. only after World War II.

Jenny Lee offers a challenge to what we might think of as an American classic. "I actually argue that fortune cookies are American, because we always say that our benchmark for American is apple pie, but you should ask yourself how often do you eat apple pie versus how often do you eat a fortune cookie?"

So why do Americans love fortune cookies so much?

"It's a little bit of life philosophy in a bite-size chunk," answered Lee.

Now there's some food for thought.

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