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ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy
ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

Who Writes the Messages in Fortune Cookies?

ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy
ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

By Karina Martinez-Carter

People often take fortune cookie messages to heart. They crack open the yellow crescent moon cookies that conclude their Chinese restaurant meal, and eagerly hunt for predictions, revelations, and deeper meaning. Many save their favorites, carrying them around in a wallet.

But these often-odd messages are not axioms from the beyond. The epigrams originate in a handful of factories that each churn out upward of 4 million little slips of wisdom a day.

Wonton Food, Inc. is the world's largest manufacturer of fortune cookies and fortune cookie messages. It was established in 1973 and is based in the New York City area, with an additional factory in Houston. Wonton Food ships between 4.5 million and 5 million cookies per day to restaurants and chains throughout the U.S. and to Canada, Latin America, and Europe.

Yang's Fortunes, Inc., founded in 1996 and based in San Francisco, just handles printing, cutting, and packaging fortunes to send off to clients baking them into cookies. Yang's churns out about 4 million fortunes per day.

Fortune cookies are conspicuously absent from restaurants in China. But in the Westernized version of Chinese dining, the treats are expected at the end of every Chinese restaurant meal, or included in a take-out order. The founders of Wonton Food and Yang's Fortunes both started off focused on other Chinese cuisine products. But each recognized the growing demand for fortune cookies and their baked-in aphorisms, and capitalized on it.

In 2005, The New Yorker profiled Donald Lau, who at the time was vice president of Wonton Food, Inc. and the person writing the fortunes. Lau scribbled off fortunes in between his other duties, gleaning inspiration from wherever he could find it — like signs in the subway, as The New Yorker recounts. Since then, the company has brought on freelance writers to supplement Lau's output of adages.

Lisa Yang, vice president of Yang's Fortunes and daughter of founder Steven Yang, fell into writing fortunes, as well. When her father expanded into printing fortunes, he hired a writer to translate Chinese proverbs. Because cultural context was lost in translation, they often ended up nonsensical. Lisa Yang would edit them in her free time. In college, she spent a lot of time writing and rewriting the fortunes, even when her father hired a writer and a teacher to assist with the duty. Lisa Yang would read books of quotes for inspiration, and peruse daily horoscopes to get in the mindset to create new messages.

Yang joined her family's company full-time in 2005, after graduating college. Today, the company has a database of about 5,000 fortunes, and no one on the payroll dedicated to producing new ones. Still, Yang will sometimes add fortunes if the mood moves her. She admits spending nights from time to time sifting through blogs dedicated to fortune cookies. "I think it's fun being the person behind this," she told me. "Fortune cookies are such a part of our lives. Even when I go to Chinese restaurant I always share my fortune out loud with friends. We always want to know what the other one has."

Fortunes also are tweaked based on client feedback. "You will meet a tall, dark stranger" was removed from circulation when people complained they found it sinister.

Wonton Food contracts freelance writers once every couple years to craft new messages for the company's database of about 15,000 fortunes. "We understand opening a fortune cookie is an exciting moment, so that is why we renew our database — to create exciting moments for people," says Danny Zeng, vice president of sales. One of the last such attempts to spice up messages was earlier this year, when the generally vague, sunny messages got a bit racier with quips like "The evening promises romantic interest" or "Romance and travel go together." The company did get some complaints about children receiving such sayings. "We want to create excitement, but not offend," Zeng says.

Yang finds that people are often surprised to learn she and her family are behind many of the fortune cookies they receive, and they often pull out the favorites from their wallet to show her. And if knowing the business origins of treasured, seemingly omniscient fortune cookie messages brings them disappointingly back to earth, they can at least still hang onto the belief that the cosmos conspired to land a particular cookie in their hands.

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holidays
What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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