January 28, 2024

Photo Essay: Good Fortune at the Cookie Factory, San Francisco

The first time I visited San Francisco, back in 2006, the internet just wasn't what it is today. And so although we figured out some fun things to do—take a nighttime tour of Alcatraz, for instance—there just wasn't that much I was familiar with, beyond cable cars and restaurants.

That was totally different this time around, when I've had nearly 20 years to add places to my map and learn more about the city by the Bay from afar. And when I visited a couple of weeks ago, I knew I wanted to go to Chinatown.

Because who wouldn't want to go see how fortune cookies are made?!

I know it may seem like a tourist trap. But to be honest, I don't mind tourist traps. In fact, I often embrace them
The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory was established in this circa 1907 building in 1962—which makes it certifiably historic. And it's an attraction that brings some attention to the equally historic Ross Alley, where garment factories and Chinese herbalists used to be part of the bustle.

There was a long line to get into the storefront—partially because it's so small, only big enough for a single-file line to make its way to the assembly line, wind around to the cash register, and then exit out the same door you came in through. 

Along the way, there are treats that have been boxed and bagged—including fortune-less "flats," stacked up like communion wafers for those who might like a taste without the paper waste.

It smells so good in there—and you start to realize that you've never had a fortune cookie this fresh. 

The "small flats" come in the regular fortune cookie flavor (which is, at its most basic level, vanilla)—but the "big flats" come in your choice of strawberry (pink), chocolate (brown), or green tea (green).

You could even get a giant fortune cookie—with untold amounts of butter, sugar, flour, eggs, and sesame (all standard components, but part of the secret recipe that goes into making the batter at Golden Gate).

It comes, of course, in a gift box. 

Part of what makes the line move so slowly is the "write your own fortune" station, where you can scrawl a message on a tiny slip of paper...
...and hand it to the workers to stuff into a freshly hand-folded cookie and box up for you to take home. 

For me, the real appeal was seeing the flats come "hot off the presses"—collected from circa 1952 machines with copper slow-release heat rotating griddle wheels—and folded while still hot. If it cools down too much, it could shatter into bits. 

Each flat is carefully inspected—and the factory rejects are tossed aside and then given as a free sample to the customers waiting in line.  

Behind the cashier, there's a selection of "Adult X Rated" cookies, whose fortunes promise a naughtier message.

If a cocoa-flavored cookie containing a saucy message instead of a wise prophecy seems inauthentic to Chinese culture, it's important to remember that fortune cookies were actually invented in San Francisco, probably by a Japanese man.

But they've become a big part of Americanized Chinese culture—alongside Cantonese restaurants (also not really "Chinese" from China). And fortunately, the Golden Gate factory is still run by the same Chinese American family that founded it, making it a big part of the legacy of San Francisco and its Chinatown. 

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