The Racisity of Fortune Cookies

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I need a break from all the trademark cases, and the latest Jeremy Lin controversy caught my eye. Why not indulge ourselves in a fun, contentious, yet ultimately meaningless debate, kicked off by a post title that includes an invented word?

Here’s what happened:

A local [Cambridge, Massachusetts] branch of Ben & Jerry’s has apologized for briefly offering a frozen yogurt flavor inspired by professional basketball’s sudden sensation Jeremy Lin that included fortune cookie pieces, in an acknowledgment that the dish could be seen as playing on Asian stereotypes.

Ben & Jerry’s whipped out the old apology mighty quick after receiving some complaints. It does sound as though they may have first tried a surreptitious change to the offending ingredient. See if you buy this explanation:

[The yogurt] originally contained lychee honey swirls and crumbled fortune cookies — until the company substituted a waffle cookie for crumbling or dipping.

“There seemed to be a bit of an initial backlash about it,” Ryan Midden, Ben & Jerry’s general manager for Boston and Cambridge, told Boston.com, “but we obviously weren’t looking to offend anybody and the majority of the feedback about it has been positive.”

According to Midden, the main reason for changing the cookie was that “a couple of [containers] got returned because the cookies got so soggy.”

Yeah, maybe. Seems to me that the replacement, pieces of waffle cone, are kind of the same thing. But that’s a minor point.

My first reaction to the controversy was to think about my own ethnicity and wonder what the analog stereotype food would be if Ben & Jerry’s rolled out a flavor in tribute to a famous Jewish athlete. This assumes, of course, that they could even find a Jewish athlete who was enjoying Jeremy Lin-style success — is Sandy Koufax still alive?

As to the food . . . God knows. In all honesty, a Jewish ice cream flavor would probably taste like crap. But if they did throw in some bagel pieces or something, would that bother me? I wouldn’t eat it, but it wouldn’t offend my sensibilities either. Then again, bagels are not really part of any negative stereotype about Jews.

I suspect this fortune cookie fiasco will die down fairly quickly. After all, fortune cookies are synonymous with Chinese restaurants in the U.S., not Chinese-Americans. Or is that part of the stereotype too? That’s rather confusing.

While I’m not going to scream “racist” here, I am left with one question: why is it that other celebrity-inspired flavors like Cherry Garcia, Stephen Colbert’s Americone Dream, Phish Food, and Late Night Snack don’t use ethnic stereotypes, but Jeremy Lin’s flavor did? Lack of imagination? They couldn’t find some sort of basketball or sports-related ingredients?

In any event, there’s a bigger issue here. After I read this story, I mentioned it to my wife, who said something to the effect of “WTF? That’s not racist.” But that’s the thing. It isn’t racist to your average Chinese person because fortune cookies aren’t Chinese. My wife had no idea what fortune cookies were until she saw a reference to them in a movie several years ago.

If there’s no cultural/historical underpinning here, then the stereotype makes no sense.

But of course, this is not a story about China, but rather about the U.S. and its history, and why Americans are so sensitive about stereotypes. During our conversation on this, I tried to explain to her that if Ben & Jerry’s had come out with an ice cream flavor inspired by an African-American B-ball player and had used ingredients associated with past stereotypes (watermelon is the obvious choice here), the uproar would be tremendous, and rightly so. That’s not just a stereotype, but a negative one.

After explaining this, I was again met with a blank stare. She didn’t get it, did not know the history and therefore was extremely confused at how reference to this particular fruit would cause so much trouble. And then she said something that I found really interesting (and I paraphrase): Americans have too much history.

Huh. This was coming from someone whose country’s history can be traced back thousands of years. I’m from LA, a city whose residents (most of them, anyway) usually trace back municipal history only a few decades, so I understandably found her comment bizarre. But when I queried further, she said that her conception of China, in some ways, only dates back to 1949.

Convenient, that! And maybe useful, too, assuming that offending portions of the past can really be ignored or glossed over. But then again, if anyone could control that sort of messaging, it would be modern China.

Think of the historical turmoil that the U.S. is still dealing with. It’s been over 150 years since the Civil War and about 50 years since the end of Jim Crow (not to mention 130 years since the Chinese Exclusion Act), and we’re still mired in our history, seemingly unable to get that whole “equality” thing right after so many bumbles and stumbles along the way. And in our attempts to get it right, in recent years we’ve become afraid to even have an open dialog about the issue, which is sad. Instead, we usually just call each other names.

Given the relative youth of the U.S., it’s seems incredible to even consider that America has too much history, but I think there is a point to be made there.

This story tells us a lot more about the history of the U.S. and its inability to move beyond race than anything else. The question is when that will pass, and what will it look like when it’s over. Would we be living in a post-racial environment if Ben & Jerry’s never considered fortune cookies to begin with, or if they did and no one cared? (In my book, the former, but some folks disagree.) Racism and stereotyping is learned, it’s part of history. Sometimes I think it would be nice to do a hard reset and sweep all that away.

23 responses on “The Racisity of Fortune Cookies

  1. Adam Minter

    I’m very grateful for this post, if only because I finally have an excuse to tell the world that I once knew somebody who used to make ice cream laced with crushed matzoh pieces for Passover. Thank you.

  2. Joyce Lau

    This is political correctness gone mad.
    What if there was an Irish ice cream flavored with Bailey’s? Or a Canadian one with maple syrup. I mean, we’re talking about dessert flavorings here. Must everything be political?
    A million years ago, when I first started writing professionally, I did a story for “Toronto Life” magazine, about an old family-run fortune cookie factory in Chinatown.
    Was I being pigeon-holed as the token Asian writer? Maybe. But it was probably just because I happened to speak Cantonese. And I didn’t mind being pigeon-holed since I enjoyed writing about a part of the immigrant experience.
    Years later, I caught a mistake on a supplement for a newspaper I was working for. It was an ad about celebrating Chinese New Year in Hong Kong and China. And the border of the ad was made up of a fortune cookie pattern.
    I asked them to change it — not because it was offensive, but because it was inaccurate. Nobody in China or Hong Kong has ever seen a fortune cookie here!
    The fortune cookie was a Chinese immigrant marketing gimmick, probably from San Francisco, to lure Westerners into Asian restaurants.

  3. Joyce Lau

    There is much wonderful Jewish food. I won’t even go into the whole Chinese immigrant-Jewish food love-in here, since it would take too long. Suffice it to say that our family loved challah, onion rolls, Montreal smoked meat, lox on our bagels, and even homemade latkes. But NONE of it makes for a very good ice cream flavor.

    1. Stan Post author

      I’m thinking a chocolate-vanilla swirl with lox and pickled herring, with chunks of raisin challah thrown in. (I’ll probably have the Anti-defamation League on me for that one.)

      1. Colin Lovett

        They may not be after you until they stop gagging Stan. That might take a while. :)

        Fancy seeing you here Joyce! Surprisingly, the fortune cookie did start in San Francisco but at a Japanese restaurant. Funny that they are associated with Chinese restaurants in the west but were actually a Japanese-American invention first.

        They were first served at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, which I had the pleasure of touring last year.

  4. Tanner Boyle

    Ryan Braun is Jewish and he has been getting quite a bit of attention for the last week.

    Chocolate covered gefilte fish would offend everyone.

  5. Tee

    Yeah, I think the offending element here is the fact that a Jeremy Lin-inspired theme must somehow play on the popular stereotypes of his ethnic background. A similar controversy occurred not long ago when someone created an image of Jeremy Lin’s head popping out of a fortune cookie. What this does is that it dehumanises Asian Americans and deprives them of the opportunity to be recognised as individuals, as opposed to a mere representative of a race/culture.

    And although I personally do not think what has happened here is that big of a deal, I would caution against the inclination to dismiss those who do find it offensive as political correctness gone mad. More often than not, the problem with Asian Americans with regard to matters of race relations is that they don’t voice their complaints. This is why slurs and other discriminatory behaviour one would normally not think of using against other minority groups are often directed against Asian Americans.

  6. Shaji

    “And in our attempts to get it right, in recent years we’ve become afraid to even have an open dialog about the issue, which is sad”

    I don’t think the problem is limited to the US. I think this is one of the key issues in the rise in far right political groups in the UK (where I grew up) and in much of Europe. Many people had concerns about rising immigration, for example, but the lack of a sensible debate amongst mainstream politicians led many otherwise reasonable people to turn to more extreme political parties.

  7. Marius Schutz

    Quite frankly’ like your wife, I don’t get it either. I also have no idea what the issue is. Your wife is right, Americans make too big an issue about racism but never seem to be doiing anything about it – poverty is also racism but the vast majority of American not-poor people dont’t give a damn as long as their kids don’t have to go to school with the poor kids – and the incomce gap is widening in their favour – There was an interesting NYT article about that.

    Let me hasten to say, I have declared many times that the US has both the best (Declaration of Independence, NYT, Google, etc etc) and the worst (unequal access and other true measures of democracy) of what is available in the world – but the race-debate sucks for lack of action. The income gap is widening and it is the colourred people who are suffering the most.

    Europe is just the same — they just don’t go around apologing if they don’t intend to do anything about it.

    In China at least, all jobs, frorm the most menial to the highest, are performed by the Chinese – accept the lowest of them all: English teaching!

    1. Robert Park

      Well, racism does exist in China too, against the minority ethnicities. I volunteer regularly in rural Sichuan. Bunch of the Han Chinese even consider the Yi people no better than animals.

      And for the record, I had no idea all of the foods mentioned in this comment thread were Jewish. Heck. Bagels are Jewish?? I haven’t had a bagel in a long time now… should go to Dunkin’ Donuts or something, though it’s not quite the same as a real bagel, I guess. I don’t think they have lox either. :(

  8. D

    Jewish ice cream called “Kashrut Dilemma”: green mint ice cream served with tofu-derived bacon bits

    Jewish ice cream called “Coney Island Guilty Pleasure”: vanilla ice cream served with wads of mustard and bits of Hebrew National hotdogs

    Jewish ice cream called “My Son, The Lawyer”: served in an envelope containing an edible NDA and a gold-encased ice cream coin sandwich

    Jewish ice cream called “Noah’s Ark Dairy Dream”: chocolate fudge ice cream mixed with chopped liver from no less than 20 different types of animals

    Jewish ice cream called “Wailing Wall”: Strawberry ice cream swirled with salted sesame seeds

  9. Benjy

    There is another chain in Boston called JP Licks which offers both Manischewitz flavored ice cream (it’s gross) and noodle kugel ice cream (pretty good, tastes like oatmeal cookie with a couple pieces of egg noodle). But those are the names of the ice creams and they’re modeled after flavors, not after one ethnic component of a particular person. The Linsanity flavor has a level of “racisity” because they threw fortune cookies in because he’s Asian. It’s like if they had a “Koufax” flavor and threw in bagels and cream cheese simply because Sandy was Jewish. It’d be fine if they called the flavor “bagels & cream cheese,” or in this case “vanilla and fortune cookie,” but they named it after Jeremy, which gives it its racisity. Who knows if Jeremy even likes fortune cookies?!? I’m Jewish, but I certainly don’t like chopped liver.

    1. Stan Post author

      Talk about a niche market. That ice cream place has got to be on Harvard St. in Brookline, right? I like egg noodle kugel (mother used to make it), but putting that flavor in ice cream . . . I don’t know.

      As to Jeremy Lin and fortune cookies, does anyone really like the taste of those things? I always thought they tasted like cardboard. At least almond cookies have a bit of flavor to them.

  10. Bob Walsh

    Chinese Ben & Jerry’s?

    “Acquired Taste” Stinky Tofu bits, sweetened red beans in black sesame ice cream made with melamine-laced milk.

  11. Anna

    Nationalist Chinese tend to remember the Opium Wars, gloss over the CR and forget 6/4. So much for too much or too little history.
    Many Chinese probably don’t get what the problem would be with the icecream because they and the vast majority of the people around them are Han. Perhaps if you ask Tibetans or Uygurs or other minorities about stereotypes and racism, you’d get a different reaction.

    1. Stan Post author

      You’re right, although China-based racisity has its own symbols. I suspect that even minority people here would have a hard time cracking the bizarre current U.S. code language about race. They would certainly be more sensitive to the overall issue, though.

    2. Tee

      That’s not quite a fair assessment of nationalist Chinese. Chinese people in general find it irritating, and rather offensive, when Westerners bring up the Cultural Revolution and other atrocities committed against them by their government because Westerners usually do so as a way to compare, or even justify, acts of aggression committed by foreign powers against China. If, for example, the government is doing something to commemorate the Nanjing Massacre or is demanding that the Japanese acknowledge that the event took place, a typical response from a Westerner would be, “What about Tiananmen, the Chicoms are hypocrites!”

      In the minds of Chinese people, a distinction is drawn between atrocities committed against them by their government and atrocities committed against them by foreigners. The former are regarded as something akin to a dispute between family members that should be addressed internally in the context of how the nation can be improved; the latter are regarded as invasion and violation of China’s national sovereignty.

      1. Anna

        That is indeed how many nationalist Chinese think. But yeah, I do think it’s odd and sometimes results in hypocrisy, and it seems to me a distorted view on history. Something bad of almost 200 years ago is still fresh in the mind when the occasion calls for it, but when it comes to the CR, well, you have to understand, that was a long time ago and we would rather forget about it. Let alone 6/4. The idea that a foreign power committing crimes against your people is infinitely worse that your own government committing such crimes is a view I very much disagree with.

  12. Rens Metaal

    “This assumes, of course, that they could even find a Jewish athlete who was enjoying Jeremy Lin-style success” This ranks close to naming 5 famous Belgians…