Fortune was not smiling on me the day that I found Golden Dragon. It was a very snowy Monday in late March, and I was wandering around an unfamiliar part of Chinatown with two dollars in my pocket, a gallon of ice water in my boot, and a nasty hangover sloshing around my noggin. Coming around the corner, I caught a potent whiff of vanilla and rising dough. My luck was starting to turn.
Golden Dragon Fortune Cookies has been a major supplier of crunchy cookies and ancient Chinese wisdom for at least thirty years. It does most of its business in bulk, shipping millions of fortunes to restaurants and markets in Chicago and beyond, but intrepid walk-ins are also welcome—if they know where to go.
The factory’s only viable entrance is a small loading dock (don’t be deterred by the idling trucks and fork lifts), the kind that looks like it doesn’t really expect visitors. Inside and to the right of this dock is a small receiving office that also looks like you’re not allowed inside. The combined effect of this double layer of the foreboding, “you-shouldn’t-be-in-here” vibe is that, when you do walk brazenly through the plastic sheeting and then into the unmarked office—as I did a couple of Mondays ago—you feel like an insider, like a favorite nephew of the owner who hasn’t visited for a long time.
That’s how the women in the office treat you, anyway. Golden Dragon’s employees are exceedingly pleasant, exuding a friendliness so warm that it borders on the familial; if you were to sit down for any stretch of time while shopping, you’d probably be offered a cup of tea and asked about your day. Even with my somewhat invasive questions about the establishment, and general distrust of foods holding secret messages, the woman who sold me my cookies was endlessly happy to confirm that, yes, Golden Dragon makes all their wares on site, yes, Golden Dragon has been around a long time (“much longer than you!”), yes, these are authentic Chinese cookies and, yes, the little slips of paper in each golden morsel were shipped directly from China and never, ever lie.
Well. Sort of. The truth is that fortune cookies—and the messages inside them—are not Chinese, or even Chinese American. According to historian and fortune cookie expert Yasuko Nakamachi, the treats are probably from Kyoto, brought over by Japanese immigrants to California in the late nineteenth century. It fits: the Japanese have a rich history of putting fortunes in their food. Known in Japan as o-mikuji, these fortunes traditionally contain both charms and curses (it’s rare to find a malevolent fortune in the modern Chinese restaurant variety, but if you do get a bad fortune, you can neutralize its effects by attaching the paper slip to a pine tree). Fortune cookie production was then co-opted by the Chinese during World War II, and spread across the States after returning GIs got a taste for them.
About the taste: it’s subtle. The hint of vanilla aside, the primary appeal of eating a fortune cookie is usually in getting to the slip of paper inside. But biting into a fresh Golden Dragon cookie is a revelatory experience: it turns out that every restaurant fortune cookie you’ve ever had has been a stale imitation of the thin, crispy platonic ideal that is a Golden Dragon original. Their other product, almond cookies (twenty for a dollar!), are also excellent, with a cloying, buttery flavor that lingers in the back of the mouth for days afterward. Orgasmic when paired with coffee.
Nice as they were, the employees of Golden Dragon would not permit me to explore the factory floor and discover the mysterious process by which fortunes are made. I was not allowed to inspect the dragon-fire kiln in which the cookies are baked, or the giant vat of shimmering Luck into which each cookie is dipped before being packaged and shipped. Ancient Chinese secrets, I guess.
So I tumbled out into the cold streets of Chinatown once again, two dollars poorer, still vaguely queasy behind the eyes, but with a dozen golden cookies stuffed into my coat pocket. I quickly devoured them on the train ride home, and read the messages inside, and felt better. “You will become better acquainted with a co-worker.” “You will come into money soon.” “Smile often, and see what happens.” The 55 was waiting for me at the bus stop.
Golden Dragon Fortune Cookies, 2323 S. Archer Avenue. Monday-Friday, 7am-3:30pm.