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The fortune cookie, that little pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that is dinner at Western-style Chinese restaurants, has always been a fun treat. Its light, sweet taste and simple form--perfect for cracking open to reveal the tiny slip of paper that purports to hold the secrets of your future--are a delight that, in youth, I recall looking forward to more than the food itself. It was the original Happy Meal treat, predating, I was sure, even the venerable Cracker Jack prize.

Whether its fortune-telling powers held any water was, to me, moot. Like the I Ching, it got you randomly to a thought that might make a change in your day. That was the risk and the promise of subjecting yourself to a sliver of ancient Chinese prophecy...even if its invention was more modern and its manufacture really carried out by immigrant laborers in a Brooklyn, NY, factory somewhere. Moot, I say. The experience was mildly exhilarating.

Then, one day, a disturbing trend was brought to my attention. The cliched fortune, like "You will meet a tall, dark stranger," which carried the chance of adventure, or at least something new, was being edged out by a different kind of message. Or maybe the other strain of "fortune" had always been there, but I wasn't aware till one long lunch at a suburban strip mall when Mother and I held napkins to our lips and reached for our happy desserts.

"Damn," she said, shaking her head over the tiny scroll in her fingers. "Philosophy cookie."

Her "fortune" was no fortune at all, but rather something like, "In every enterprise, consider the outcome." Helpful advice, perhaps, but certainly not the mystical promise or warning that might make you pause and wonder if, just maybe, the universe were trying to give you a glimpse of the road ahead in this seemingly innocuous sweet. That was what fortune cookies were for; we had Dear Abby and other great thinkers for the rest.

I have done no scientific study, but I feel that the philosophy cookie now accounts for the majority among individually wrapped cookies in that little plate they bring you. And I didn't come to this Chinese restaurant for philosophy, dammit.

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