San Francisco’s Chinatown is a sight to behold. And that’s true even if you’ve lived here a while. Once you get past the trinket shops on Grant Street and the grocers on Stockton Street, you might be wondering how else to tour around Chinatown. Well, it’s time to head for the alleys and stop in at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.
Chinatown’s alleys and side streets offer a not-at-all-hidden alternative to getting around, with colorful traditional Chinatown architecture, Chinese temples, family association halls, and bakeries. Even though the alleys may only be a block away from the throngs of tourists, they receive little to no foot traffic. You could spend an entire morning wandering through the mellow maze of streets, taking in the ornate ironwork and painted balconies.
Tucked into one of Chinatown’s oldest alleys stands one of the only fortune cookie factory left in San Francisco: the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. A dark, narrow gorge cut between city blocks, Ross Alley was once home to brothels, gambling houses, and billiard parlours. San Francisco Magazine once called it ““ronchiest [sic], most fetid, worst ventilated thoroughfare in Chinatown.” Turning the corner onto Ross Alley’s grey, slick tunnel , its sordid past feels close at hand…except for the jarring and overwhelming smell of vanilla cookies.
At the north end of the alley, with pagoda-inspired arches along its façade, you’ll see the sign for the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.
If you’re a fan of fortune cookies, you probably already know that they have very little to do with China, and more to do with Japan. Fortune-cookie-adjacent wafers have been found in bakeries outside Kyoto, and many of the first American bakers who’ve claimed to “invent” the fortune cookie were Japanese immigrants.
Yeah, so who actually invented the fortune cookie is quite the controversy! (In addition to being another notch in the San Francisco-Los Angeles city rivalry.) In turn-of-the-century San Francisco, the landscape designer who created Golden Gate Park‘s Japanese Tea Garden, Makoto Hagiwara, began serving “tea cakes” (they weren’t folded but did contain fortunes) to park visitors. Meanwhile, in 1918 Los Angeles, David Jung handed out cookies filled with Bible verses to unemployed men. A few Japanese bakers in Los Angeles around the same time also claim to have invented the cookie. It is still a mystery.
What’s not contested is that in the 1960s, Edward Louis, who ran San Francisco’s Lotus Fortune Cookie Factory on Pacific Avenue, invented the completely automated fortune cookie machine. It not only made the cookies, but used air to blow fortunes into each cookie before folding it.
With the industrialization of the fortune cookie, its popularity took off. Now, more than three billion fortune cookies are made each year, mostly in the United States. The largest manufacturer, Wonton Food Inc in Queens, NY, attempted to market the cookies in China as “genuine American fortune cookies”. They didn’t take off. As the New York Times reported, Chinese reactions ranged from confusion to amusement to “Americans are so strange, why are they putting pieces of paper in their cookies?”
The mystery continued as I faced the large Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory sign. Clearly, I was in the right spot, but I had no idea which unmarked door led to the factory. This is probably because I still had ideas about what a Fortune Cookie Factory would look like – something along the lines of what you’d see on the Discovery Channel. Conveyor belts shuttling sugar and vanilla then batter then wafers through cauldrons and between temperature controlled rooms. Workers in white uniforms. Maybe booties would be involved.
Staring at two possible doorways, I very nearly opted for the one with steps leading down to a fluorescent lit basement, the word “OPEN” scrawled on a piece of paper above the archway.
Luckily, I peeked into the other doorway and a woman sitting at a large black iron press urged me inside. With arms and hands rhythmically folding wafers into the familiar fortune cookie shape, she nodded towards a box of rejects and told me to take some.
I munched away on the flat disks and took in the scene. There are two machines in the factory. Each is cylinder with small iron presses around the circumference — like tiny petals on a hulking sunflower. Each tiny press operates like a waffle iron. A tube drops a dollop of batter onto the bottom iron, the top iron clamps down around the batter, and the machine turns one click. When the iron disk has made one rotation around the cylinder, the cookie is ready and the bottom and top presses separate to reveal a still-soft wafer. A worker peels the wafer off the press, inserts the fortune, and folds the wafer into the shape of a fortune cookie. She then places it on a special cooling rack to harden.
You can stand there for as long as you like, but taking photos will set you back $.50. Once you’re ready to go, make sure to pick up a bag of fortune cookies to share. I opted for a bag of 6 for $1.
Back in Ross Alley, I leaned up against a brick wall and cracked one open. “You will have a long life.” Uninspired, maybe, but I’ll take it.
Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
56 Ross Alley, San Francisco, CA
Hours: 9am to 6pm everyday
Admission: Free (but $.50 if you’d like to take photos)
by Maria/Far Out City. Maria writes about San Francisco and urban travel over at Far Out City. All photos copyright by 2013 Far Out City.