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Editor's Note: Tell me my fortune...or lack thereof

Published: Tuesday, April 8, 2014 10:25 a.m. CDT

I

had an oddly unsettling experience at a Chinese restaurant.

At the end of the meal, the waitress brought us our check and the obligatory set of plastic-wrapped fortune cookies. Fortune cookies don’t enjoy the success they have because of their delightful flavor. Dry, bland, and oddly textured, they are, of course, all about the fortune.

Except mine didn’t have one.

My husband and son cracked open their cookies and tossed the shards aside to read their fortunes. A slip of paper even peeked out from the open end of the baby’s cookie. But when I cracked mine open, there was nothing inside.

I’ve had pretty good luck with fortune cookies in the past. At the end of the day I quit a really awful job, I got a fortune cookie that said, “The strife is over; sunny days are ahead.” After booking a vacation that included a boat trip – facing one of my personal fears – I had one that said, “Bravery will be met with great reward.”

(I didn’t really get any reward for taking the boat trip, but it was still a good fortune.)

On the other hand, I have often been disappointed by fortune cookie fortunes – mainly by the ones that aren’t fortunes at all, but proverbs or bits of advice. “An empty belly is the best cook” and “Smile and the world smiles with you” aren’t really fortunes at all.

One year, we ate at a Chinese restaurant on New Year’s Eve. I cracked open my cookie at 11 p.m. to read, “The current year holds great promise for you.” I wished I’d waited an hour.

Still, it was weird to not have any fortune at all, good, bad or indifferent. Was the absence of the fortune actually my fortune? Was the cookie trying to tell me I had no future?

Well, no. Of course not. But it still left me with a weird feeling that had me looking both ways carefully before stepping out into the parking lot.

On a tangentially related note, why do we trust a cookie to tell us what lies ahead anyway? According to the Smithsonian – which seemed as reliable source as any other I found on the topic – fortune cookies aren’t Chinese at all. Nor, as I had been led to believe, were they invented in post-World War II America.

In fact, the tradition of including paper fortunes in little cookies or crackers seems to have originated in Japan. During a World War II boom in the popularity of Chinese food in the U.S., West Coast restaurants often accompanied their Americanized Chinese meals with fortune cookies. When the Japanese-American bakers who made the cookies were forced into internment camps, entrepreneurial Chinese bakers stepped in to fill the void. By the time the war was over, fortune cookies and Chinese food were inseparable all over America. In China, however, the cookies are often sold as “American fortune cookies.”

Now that’s a turn of events no cookie could have predicted.

Enjoy your MidWeek.

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