The Non-Expert

Credit: Jennifer Daniel for TMN

You Will Soon Receive Great Knowledge

Experts answer what they know. The Non-Expert answers anything. This week, we crack open one of the mysteries of the universe: How do fortune cookies work?

Have a question? Need some advice? Ignored by everyone else? Send us your questions via email. The Non-Expert handles all subjects and is written by a member of The Morning News staff.


Question: How do fortune cookies work? —Chris

Answer: Fortune cookies work under an exemption in U.S. employment law, granted by the 97th United States Congress. The emergency legislation was hurriedly enacted in 1981 after President Ronald Reagan fired more than 12,000 striking cookies of the Professional Flatbread Treat Organization. Members had walked out of jars and packages nationwide in protest, citing “low-quality ingredients” and “degrading working conditions” (Oreos in particular objected to the new practice of being “Double Stuf’d”).

Unable to fill the abruptly vacant positions, and facing a firestorm of criticism from bakeries and preschools, officials were pressured to allow the admittance of offshore cookie replacements. More than 6,000 fortune cookies were granted temporary work visas, along with Italian biscotti, German Lebkuchen, and Mexican churros. (The churros’ visas were rescinded a year later when the Supreme Court ruled them as technically donuts; see Angela Lansbury v. Taco John’s, 1982.)

Although the exemption was designed to “sunset” after three years, eateries around the nation quickly came to depend on the new workforce. In particular, the restaurants in San Fransisco’s Chinatown were vocal in their opposition to letting the exemption expire, claiming that fortune cookies were better able to perform their duties than the Oh Henry! bars they had previously employed. They found an ally in Harvey Milk, the newly elected U.S. Representative for California’s 12th congressional district, who championed their cause in his “Milk & Cookies” campaign. Thanks in large part to his efforts, the exemption was not only extended but amended to allow greater quantities and a wider variety of foreign baked goods access to the American workforce, resulting in the so-called “Tiramisu-nami of 1984.”

The extension was controversial at the time: Critics accused Congress of being in the pocket of Big Pastry, and claimed that immigrant cookies were stealing jobs from hard-working snickerdoodles. But by the 1988 presidential election, most Americans had come to embrace fortune cookies and their kin. Indeed, George Bush’s pledge to ban foreign cookies from entering the country was wildly unpopular, and his utilization of the phrase “Read my lips: No new snackses” is commonly regarded as the turning point in his eventual loss to Gary Hart.


Since then, fortune cookie has become a respectable career in the United States, and more than 75 percent of the occupants of such positions in the U.S. now are citizens. Though most fortune cookies have four-year degrees (palatability and prognostication are popular double majors), training can be completed at technical schools, culinary arts schools, or community colleges. Fortune cookies with vast professional experience and formal training are eligible for certification by the American Culinary Federation, which can lead to a higher salary and opportunities to work in bigger restaurants.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, job opportunities for fortune cookies are growing at an annual rate of six percent. But as demand for fortune cookies has risen, employers have become less stringent in their hiring criteria. As a result, many fortune cookies currently working in the field are largely unskilled in providing predictions, instead offering platitudes (“It is the quality rather than the quantity that matters”), jokes (“A chicken is an egg’s way of producing more eggs”), or affirmations (“You are loved by friends and family”).

Fortune cookies typically work 40-hour weeks, and most receive two or three weeks of vacation a year. A typical workday is spent individually wrapped for inclusion with takeout orders, or inside giant plastic barrels in the back of restaurants, awaiting their turn to be placed on a plate with the check and served to customers. As with most employees working in the dessert sector, fortune cookies find it difficult to obtain health insurance as they tend to be fragile or prone to spoilage. The recent Health Care Reform passed by President Zuckerberg now makes it illegal to deny coverage to an employee based on their “edibility,” but those provisions are not slated to activate until 2014, two years after the end of the world.

Fortune cookies also encounter obstacles when trying to purchase life insurance. Few companies are willing to issue them policies, as nearly 100 percent of them are eventually chewed to death while performing job-related duties.

Despite these inconveniences, a career as a fortune cookie continues to be an attractive proposition for anyone interested in an exciting and fulfilling time (in bed).