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Fortune Cookie Factory

on November 23, 2009

Entering the dark little storefront in Oakland’s Chinatown, the first thing I smell is caramel—the scent of toasting sugar and oil.  No one is behind the counter, but I can see that the back area is alive with activity. Women in hairnets work attentively over the enormous, creaking wheels of six cookie baking machines.

A middle-aged lady with her hair in a bun notices me and comes to see what I want. No one told her anything about a reporter.  She is skeptical.

“I’ll pay,” I say. “I’ll take the tour.”

I’ve read online that they might do this here. She nods.

“One dollar, please,” she says, taking the bill and returning to the back. This exchange appears to constitute the tour. I follow her wordlessly and have a seat beside her station in the fortune cookie factory.

It is drafty inside, and my tour guide is wearing knit gloves and two sweaters. Packaging is her job; her station is awash in hundreds of flat coin-sized cookies. They come to her by the bucketful, hot off the machines, and she pours them in a cracking, golden cascade on to the wire mesh and spreads them out to cool. She readies the printed plastic bags, and scoops the cookies in.  Later, when she has enough bags, she will seal them up.

Farther back in the room, six older ladies in hairnets are seated in front of enormous circular cookie pressing machines. One of them is staring at me, severely, with what appears to be a hostile expression.

I smile in what I imagine to be a disarming way, but then worry that I am grinning weirdly. I decide perhaps it will help to wave, too.  This cracks her up.  She chuckles and says something to a colleague. They wave back.  They’re both laughing. Supposing this to be my moment, I venture over and sit on a wooden box beside my new acquaintance’s cookie press. The machine is a huge circle of hot, rotating plates. On one end, the empty plates rotate under a tube, which pipes batter onto them. Then they snap shut, like waffle irons, and pass under the hood, where blue flames lick at the edges as they chug past. When the plates emerge on the other side, they open to reveal perfect, golden cookies inside.

With a smile, the baker who has befriended me offers up a hot golden coin from the end of her spatula. She says something I don’t understand, but which I take to mean, “Hot.” I bite. The texture is lovely: a rough crispy edge and a warm chewy center.

“It’s really good,” I say.

Some of the cookies are flat, and some are for fortunes—bigger, so they can be shaped.  The ladies stuff the fortunes in, then fold them into the right shape. All of this happens very fast—11 cookies in one minute, one about one cookie every five seconds.

Where does the batter come from?

Then I see the mixer.  It’s hulking.  It looks like some humongous primitive ancestor of the KitchenAid.  It is four and a half feet tall.  Its paddle is the size of a candelabra.  The man at the mixer it adds water, flour and sugar and works with it for a long time, until it forms a glossy, sweet smelling liquid that he brings by the bucketful to the machines.

I reach for my camera to photograph this beast, and the woman who let me in gives me a sharp look. “No photos,” she says.  So instead I ask for a bag of fortune cookies, fresh off the machines, and the woman in two sweaters brings me one. I decide I must also buy a bag of X Rated Fortune Cookies, because I need to know what that’s about.

At a café a few blocks away, I nurse a cup of coffee and pull the first cookie from the bag. It has that sweet, dark, camelized taste—like the smell in the factory—as it breaks apart in my mouth. As I chew, I imagine the mixer churning gallons of liquid, and I think I taste water and flour and the hot metal of the plate too.

I take a look at my fortune.  “You’ll make the acquaintance of people who will be pleasant visitors in your home,” the paper reads.

I consider some recent lingering houseguests, who only just went on their way, and decide to try again.

This time, I go for the X-rated.  The fortune is yellow, presumably to prevent its mixing accidentally with the wholesome version. It says, “Fu Ling Yu says: High fidelity is a drunk who goes home regularly to his wife.”


One more.

When I break this cookie in half, dusting my notebook with crumbs, I see two slips of paper coiled inside. I unfold them. Two identical fortunes, nestled together: excellent.  Doubly wise.   “Generosity and perfection are your everlasting goals,” they say.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
Oakland North

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