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Worth a fortune

Wickedly irreverent cookies remain a widely popular treat

Published: Tuesday, March 20, 2012 4:59 p.m. CST

(MCT) — David Fenton’s kung pao chicken was always followed by a disappointment. He would unwrap the fortune cookie and sigh at the mindless drivel written on the slip of paper tucked inside. Even tacking on the words “in bed” to his fortune gave him little pleasure.

So, more than a century after San Francisco conceived this quaint Chinese-restaurant tradition, Fenton launched his own, fearless fortune cookie company — iLLFortune — in Union City, Calif., and began stuffing boldly wicked fortunes in the tasty treats. The New York native calls them “fortune cookies for the brave.” And if those irreverent, mean-spirited or hilariously inappropriate messages spark conversation and bring people together in unpredictable ways, all the better.

“Clever, original thinkers have no interest in predictable fortunes,” Fenton says. “They crave surprise and wit.”

Imagine breaking these open:

“Diapers will be part of your daily regimen and you won’t be the one changing them.”

“Counting sheep is not meant for the purpose of arousal. Get help.”

Or, “The voices in your head think you’re an idiot.”

The edgy fortunes — rated PG and profanity-free, according to Fenton — are a far cry from the trite platitudes or vague prophecies inside traditional cookies that, according to most historical accounts, have roots in Japan, not China.

As far back as the 19th century, temples in and around Kyoto, Japan, served large miso- and sesame-based crackers filled with random fortunes called omikuji.

The best guess as to the cookie’s modern provenance points to Golden Gate Park’s Japanese Tea Garden around 1900, but legends abound. According to one, it was the tea garden’s designer, Makoto Hagiwara, who purchased cookies from the city’s Benkyodo bakery and served them to visitors.

Other legends tie the cookies’ lineage to 14th-century Chinese mooncakes.

How the cookies ended up in Chinese-American restaurants is also a subject of debate. According to one popular theory, since those restaurants rarely served dessert, owners purchased the cookies from Japanese bakers to serve as inexpensive, fun after-dinner treats.

Fenton does not argue with that history, but he vehemently disagrees with using the word “fun” to describe them.

“It’s extremely rare to find a fortune remotely stirring or provocative,” Fenton says.

There have been other new wave fortune cookie companies, of course, and many offer the option of printing customized fortunes to suit the occasion. But iLLFortune’s approach is decidedly unafraid to offend.

To that end, Fenton invented an eccentric back story for his website, www.illfortune.net, where the company employs (“no, enslaves,” the San Rafael, Calif., resident says), a mysterious orphan named Cookie, who wishes people ill will through the fortunes he writes.

“This orphan possesses an uncanny ability to not only predict the future,” Fenton says, “but also see through people like cellophane.”

Fans can order cookies in traditional Chinese takeout containers, in batches of 20 (priced at $15), up to 700.

And, while the messages may make some cringe, the nutritional label won’t. Like most fortune cookies, iLLFortune cookies contain no saturated fat and no cholesterol, and one cookie contains fewer than 30 calories.

Fenton encourages a “punked” mentality surrounding the cookies, and points to April Fool’s Day, not Chinese New Year, as his company’s favorite holiday. The website includes a Hall of Victims and videos of reactions on camera. Fenton has sent complimentary boxes to comedians, and claims he’s received positive feedback from the likes of Comedy Central stand-up Reggie Watts and Rachel Dratch of “Saturday Night Live” fame.

“They love the funny, gotcha element of it,” he says.

Whether noncomedians find the website and its mascot’s pidgin-English edgy or offensive is another question.

But Fenton says it’s all in good fun and that his treats are more than dessert. They’re icebreakers. Share one with a friend, the mysterious Cookie says, and it will “make you likable. Finally.”

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