Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Alas, Poor Fortune Cookie....

PJ Harvey--"Good Fortune" (mp3)
The High Dials--"Chinese Boxes" (mp3)

There is no greater evidence of the decline in standards in our modern lives than the diminishment of the fortune cookie in Chinese restaurants. This once-noble combination of sweet crunch and sweeter wisdom, this little package of pocket Confucism whose cookie was to be savored while its message was pondered, has become little more than a kind of post-modern joke.

The name itself implies a kind of bilateral satisfaction. Originally invented by the Japanese, this staple "dessert" at the end of a Chinese meal in an American city served as both a light, but sweet, ending to a meal and a kind of restarter for lingering conversations. If the cookie was a bit stale, it really didn't matter if the dictum inside was intriguing enough. Conversely, if the prediction was bad (which it rarely was), the bland sugar taste of the cookie made it more palatable.

But not any more.

Nowadays, the cookies have been elevated to near-gourmet status in pretend-Chinese places like P.F. Chang's. You can almost picture some team of food scientists somewhere in New Jersey deconstructing and then rebuilding with superior ingredients what was never meant to be much more than a baked blend of egg whites and sugar. Even in the indifferent family-run Chinese outposts now, the corporate cookies contain a hint of orange flavoring. I can't deny that they are tastier, perhaps, but these cookies were never meant to be more than an afterthought, a clever container for the mysterious words inside.

And this focus on the cookie seems to have been at the expense of the fortune. And, the fortune at the expense of a bunch of numbers that I guess I'm supposed to take to my bookie and bet on.

Case in point. Last week, at my favorite local Japanese/Chinese dive, after a fairly satisfying meal of wonton soup (Chinese), sushi (Japanese), and fried rice (either), our waitress brought us the usual check and fortune cookies. After my lunch partner and I went through the mutual process of opening first the wrapper and then the cookie, I couldn't believe what I read:

Say hello to my little friend!

What? That isn't a fortune! Has Tony Montana expanded his drug empire and taken over the production of fortune cookies too? What is my next cookie going to say, Never Get High On Your Own Supply? No, though my "fortune" may be a famous quotation, it isn't a presentiment of anything. You can't do anything with it at all. The only thing you get when you take the time to ponder it is, What the hell? And it won't even work for the popular game where you and a spouse or a date or a table of people read fortunes aloud followed by the words "in bed." Imagine this scenario:

"Hey, Bob, what does your fortune say?"

"Um, say hello to my little bed." Yeesh.

A friend of mine got one a couple of weeks ago that he taped up in my office so that people would see it when they opened the door to leave. It said, Get over it! Now, I have to admit, most people like that one when they read it, but it is, in its way, of the same ilk. It's snarky, it's pop culture lingo, it's supposed to be hip. But when was a fortune cookie fortune supposed to be hip? It was supposed to hold the ancient, pithy truths of the Far East.

How long will it be until one of us opens the cookie that just says, Fuck you. Isn't that what we're headed for? I used to think it would be fun to run a fortune cookie company that prided itself on the kinds of modern, ironic witticisms that would undermine the whole notion of the genre, but I have since come to my senses. There is something sacred about the traditional fortune cookie. It's like a Bazooka Joe comic or a Norman Rockwell painting. We know they're going to be sort of hokey, but we take solace in the sameness of their message, and we kind of want them to be true.

On the rare occasion that I get a standard fortune like You will soon reunite with a long-lost friend, I immediately and completely ignore everything I know about the folly of fortune-telling and predicting the future and the complete randomness of the piece of paper that has come into my possession. No, I just focus on trying to figure out who that long-lost friend could be and where that reunion could possibly happen. Yeah, I should get over that, but I can't.

I do have a fortune that I carry with me at all times, because I consider it to be the perfect fortune. It's a great one to ponder in its literal sense AND it's a great one for that game mentioned above where you read it aloud and put those two words at the end:

Travelling to the south will bring you unexpected happiness.


BeckEye said...

I love fortune cookies. Unfortunately, I'm noticing a trend in Chinese take out places that they're NOT including them in the bags anymore. This is pissing me off. And then I got a fortune cookie at a burger joint the other day. What is happening to the world?

Also, I LOVE LOVE LOVE that PJ Harvey song. Thanks for reminding me that it's been absent from my iPod for too long.

Anonymous said...

I don't want to leave you out there hanging, Bob, but I pretty much agree with everything you're saying here. So here's my contribution to the comments. I concur.

Plus, today's fortunes were pretty lame, as well.