The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

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    More Fortune Cookie Memoir: from Bill Stephens

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | February 26, 2008

    I’ve become quite the magnet for fortune cookie tales both real and fictional. Bet you didn’t know there was a whole genre of fortune cookie writing, but there is.

    Bill Stephens sent me an excerpt, chapter 25, for book proposal, ‘Uncorking & Forking: It’s Been a Good Life.’”

    Uncorking & Forking: It’s Been a Good Life, Good Fortune (Cookie)

    It was the 1960’s, and I still traveled the world selling construction equipment during an eight-year hiatus between marriages. Because our equipment would be used to construct the San Mateo – Hayward Bridge across San Francisco Bay, and because several large contractors called San Francisco home, I spent many days per month in “The City by the Bay.”

    I did not complain. Already a hardened San Francisco addict, I find now, decades later, I’ve not broken that habit. Back then I could give you a better-guided tour of San Francisco than of my hometown in Texas. The hippie culture was fascinating. I once sought out the house on Stanyan Street where Rod McKuen lived and sat on the front steps reading his poetry. I haunted Café Trieste in North Beach. While in San Francisco, I always stopped by Walter Keene’s Gallery on Broadway, and eventually bought two of his paintings of sad-eyed, tear stained children’s faces. And, I’ll admit it; I did on a few occasions stray into The Condor Nightclub to see Carol Dodo introduce this new phenomenon called “topless dancing.” You could call Carol a lot of things, but “topless” was not one of them.

    I helped put Dungeness crab and abalone on the endangered species list. Scoma’s and The Trident restaurants, both built over the water in Sausalito, were must stops for me. Don’t get me started on San Francisco restaurants, but back in Jack’s Restaurant’s heyday, there was no place west of New Orleans that could bring up classic cuisine of their caliber. Think about a restaurant so successful they had an unlisted phone number.

    Since I was not spending my own money, I stayed in the Clift Hotel and started every evening with several Old Fashioned Cocktails in the Redwood Room. The making of an Old Fashioned is an art form, and no one did it better than the bartender at the Redwood. Years later, after Four Seasons began managing the Clift, the Redwood Room Old Fashioned still holds forth in its proud tradition.

    Chinatown was not a curiosity for me. It was an avocation. I loved Kan’s Restaurant and Johnny Kan taught me how to cook Chinese food with his cookbook, Eight Immortal Flavors. My return trip carry-on baggage – always loaded with snow peas (unheard of in Texas at that time), Chinese long beans (still sometimes difficult to find at home), fresh ginger, and whatever else I could spirit onto the plane – would be considered an airport security threat today.

    On one fateful night, Chinatown changed my life.

    Fog moved like a shadow into San Francisco Bay, spilled between Twin Peaks, and settled into the streets of Chinatown, making the street lights into super-sized Chinese lanterns and neon signs into impressionistic artwork. I turned down a deserted alley in my never-ending search for the definitive Chinese restaurant. The one where only Chinese is spoken, and I would be a curiosity.

    Halfway down that dark alley, a small sign advertised that inside was the “World Baking Company.” Through a narrow, dusty storefront window, I saw two people toiling over a circular machine with a small chain conveyor running around it. The combination of this mechanical marvel and “baking” was too much to resist. I went inside and was astonished to see fortune cookies being made by hand.

    The machine was about four feet in diameter and looked old enough to have arrived with the first Chinese immigrants. It was a two-person operation. Person one squirted cookie dough on small circular steel discs supported by the chain conveyor. These discs disappeared under a gas-fired tunnel oven only to reemerge half a circle later as pliable circular cookies. Person two scooped them up, placed them on a thin horizontal steel bar, added a fortune, and crimped down two opposing edges. There you have it, a fortune cookie.

    After watching for several minutes, I tried asking if they would make fortune cookies for me. No response. Finally, using sign language that would make me a hip-hopper legend today, I got the message across. Their reply lost something in translation, but the gist was they were closing in one hour, at midnight. I told them I would be right back.

    There were no Kinko’s then. Computers, word processors, and even Xerox machines didn’t exist. I ran back to the car, roared back to the Clift, and ran up to the front desk demanding a typewriter, paper, and scissors. They explained that their office was closed. Fueled by my Old Fashioneds, I explained I was prepared to open it without benefit of a key. They acquiesced, and I went to work on an IBM Selectric Typewriter, banging out my fortunes. I managed to get three dozen good fortunes typed and cut, raced back to world fortune cookie headquarters, and jerked open their door five minutes before closing. As promised, they made my fortune cookies.

    My favorite Chinese restaurant at home in Texas was Eddie Chan’s Chinese Food. I took every first date to Eddie’s. If a girl didn’t like Chinese food, that was a deal breaker for me. I gave my fortune cookies, hermetically sealed in a glass jar, to Eddie with instructions that each time I brought a new date to his restaurant, he was to give her one of my fortune cookies after dinner.

    I could learn a lot about a dinner companion when she opened her fortune cookie to read, “Your relationship with Bill Stephens will be very rewarding.” First, I knew almost immediately if I was going to get laid. Reactions ranged from giggling good humor, to riotous laughter, to one cynic’s, “Someone has been tampering with my fortune cookie.” No, she was not forthcoming sexually.

    I didn’t use all thirty-six fortunes. By about cookie twenty or cookie twenty-five I was seated across from a cute, shy lady named Kay, gamely eating Chinese food for the first time. She obviously suffered from low self-esteem. Conversation was difficult because she talked so little. I later learned she was divorced from a husband that used his fists to lower her self worth.

    She did not look up for a while after opening her cookie. When she did, there were tears of gratitude in her eyes.

    I don’t know if anyone else’s fortune cookies actually bring good fortune, but mine did. Thirty-five years after reading that fortune, my wife, Kay, still carries it in her pocketbook. I don’t know what happened to the rest of my fortune cookies.

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