At the end of one of the Pink Panther movies, Inspector Clouseau is dining at a Japanese restaurant when the server hands him something on a tray. It is a fortune cookie, which contains the following message: “Beware of Japanese waitress bearing fortune cookie.” Being completely oblivious, he takes a while to realize that he should have paid attention to the very person who gave him the fortune cookie. Meanwhile, the “Japanese waitress bearing fortune cookie” turns out to be Clouseau’s assistant, Cato, who takes every opportunity to ambush Clouseau to keep his self-defense techniques up to snuff. Cato attacks Clouseau. A melee ensues. And…curtain.
Beyond the stock comedic elements of drag, slapstick and food fights, this scene also depends on the viewer’s familiarity with fortune cookies. As presented in this country, fortune cookies are a phenomenon strictly associated with Chinese restaurants. Your average American probably thinks of fortune cookies as a Chinese invention, rather than a Japanese one, which is why “Japanese waitress bearing fortune cookie” is incongruous and therefore funny.
However, fortune cookies really are Japanese in origin, argues researcher Yasuko Nakamachi. Years of painstaking research into the fortune cookie trail have convinced her that the ubiquitous dessert of American Chinese takeout restaurants actually first began in shrine-side Japanese bakeries, where the wafers were hand-cooked over open coals. Reports of these Japanese fortune-cookie ancestors date back almost 200 years in literature and illustrations. Go read the article for speculation about how Japanese temple wafers hopped the ocean to California and somehow developed into a quintessentially American institution that was firmly associated with Chinese cuisine.
And don’t tell me you didn’t learn anything today.