Unless you’re an extreme minority, you’ve had General Tso’s chicken at some point in your life. If you’re like me, it’s your first choice whenever you get Chinese food. And if you’ve ever been curious about the history of the dish, then you need to watch “The Search for General Tso.” (It’s available on Netflix.)
The film is an hour-long history of Chinese food in the United States with a particular focus on this staple of Chinese restaurants that nearly every American has tried. The filmmakers traveled to China, Taiwan, and all across the United States to answer questions like “how did Chinese restaurants become so ubiquitous in seemingly every town in the United States?” and “Why does this one dish show up everywhere and where did it come from?”
There are several interesting things about the film worth commenting on without hopefully giving away too much of the story.
Americanized Chinese food arose out of conditions of marginalization and isolation.
One of the consequences of the Chinese Exclusion Act, signed into law in 1882, is that it became virtually impossible for Chinese Americans to get jobs. This created a need for self-employment and led them to two main businesses—laundromats and restaurants. Much like another classic American cuisine, barbecue, Americanized Chinese food grew out of the hardships imposed upon a racial minority by the empowered white Americans.
Initially Chinese Americans took a relatively simple approach to the food they made in restaurants by inventing chop suey. Chop suey is basically just a meat of some kind prepared along with some rather bland traditional Asian vegetables and served like a stir fry.
Later, particularly after Nixon’s visit to China, the American palate began to develop more and Chinese restauranteurs responded with spicier dishes that took classic American comfort foods like fried chicken and gravy and turned them into a wholly new, unique type of food that you don’t really find anywhere else in the world in the same way.
But it began from a place of limitation and marginalization. This relates to a comment that chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill Restaurant made in Netflix’s excellent series The Chef’s Table. In America, Barber said, the defining characteristic of our food culture has been abundance. We’ve generally not needed to learn how to cook with less desirable cuts of meat or how to make relatively plain root vegetables taste good because we had so much higher quality food available to us. But for people whose means were limited they were forced to think creatively about how to work with more meager provisions. And the result of those imposed limits is food like Carolina pulled pork, Memphis-style BBQ ribs, and, of course, General Tso’s chicken.
If you want to relate this to the Benedict Option discussion then one thing we can say is that marginalization and limitation can sometimes produce wonderful, resilient work that lasts far longer than the works produced by wealthier, more affluent groups. (Eddie Izzard makes a similar point about American church music in his standup comedy—if you think of the most distinctive, high-quality religious music ever produced in the United States you’re almost certainly thinking of Negro spirituals or Gospel music, both of which emerged out of the experience of African Christians living under profound injustice.)
American Chinese food has emerged out of the thick connections of the Chinese immigrant community.
One of the interesting questions with American Chinese food is how it manages to be fairly homogeneous without having a lot of strong national brands that would account for the uniformity. But what has happened in many cases is that Chinese immigrants find jobs through local Chinese associations and many of these immigrants (who come to America not knowing English) start out in Chinese restaurants.
What’s more, these regional associations also help immigrant families find places to work and this often takes the form of finding a small town where they can start a restaurant. In one interview a Chinese restauranteur talked about being the only Chinese family running the only Chinese restaurant in a small town in middle America. In another interview the filmmakers spoke with a father-son team from Springfield MO that invented cashew chicken as a way to get midwesterners to try Chinese food when the father first came to the area in the 1960s and faced hostility from the locals.
Cultures change as populations move and knowing how to make sense of those changes is… complicated.
One of the most interesting threads to the story is how the various people interviewed think about the evolution of Chinese food in the United States. When the filmmakers go to Hunan Province in China where the real General Tso is still revered they meet people who don’t even recognize photos of what any American would immediately know is General Tso’s chicken. Meanwhile in Taiwan an aging Chinese chef who knows the dish is dismayed at how American Chinese have changed it. And in the United States different American Chinese have varying responses to changes in their food. For some it’s inevitable—besides the more mainstream American Chinese food they also feature Cajun-style Chinese food, Indian Chinese food, and Mexican Chinese food.
If you’re like me, you’ll initially feel more sympathetic with those who want to preserve Chinese food as it has always been. And yet what’s striking about the various people interviewed in the film is that none of them are wholly renouncing Chinese food; they’re adapting it. One chef serves alligator, another makes General Tso’s tofu. What looks like a complete abandonment of tradition to the former group looks like a creative adaptation of an in-tact tradition to the latter.
There is a lot more that could be said about the movie, so if you get a chance to watch it (it’s only an hour long) I’d love for you to jump into the discussion in the comments below. Histories of specific cultural artifacts can often teach us things about a culture that we wouldn’t learn from a more high-level abstract study. So some of the questions this film is encouraging us to ask could easily be applied to any number of other discussions.