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General Tso's Chicken & Chinese Culture in America

MWW-OutNabout-the-search-for-general-tso-platter-23Jan2015 Our second event for Friday took us to the Cleveland Cinematheque where we watched a documentary titled "The Search for General Tso" that was both informative and lightly entertaining.

As most of us know, General Tso's Chicken is a sweet and spicy deep-fried dish that appears on the menu of many Chinese restaurants under that name while others just call it hot and spicy chicken.

This documentary shows that it was named after a prominent 19th century general from the Hunan province of China by a chef named Peng Jia who admired General Tso so he named a chicken dish that he created after him. In 1973 Chef Peng moved to New York and opened a restaurant and General Tso's Chicken became a great success.

Not surprisingly, though, when Chef Peng tried to open a restaurant in Hunan in the 1990's the dish was not liked because the locals found it to be too sweet for their tastes. This illustrates a point that this documentary is trying to make which is that what is advertised in U.S. restaurants as "Chinese Food" is, the vast majority of the time, not really authenticChinese food but an Americanized version of it. Thus just as people who immigrate to this country must compromise and lay aside some of there traditions in order to assimilate into American society so must the foods from their countries of origin.


"The Search for General Tso" really gets into the history of Chinese people in the United States starting from when a great wave of immigrants arrived during the California Gold Rush of 1849. Due to the language barrier, their only chances for prosperity were in the food and laundry industries. It tells of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and how people were forced to move to other parts of the country to avoid persecution and not to have to compete with other Chinese people for employment. When one thinks about this, it is possible to come to the conclusion that a similar situation exists today for people who immigrate to the U.S. from China because, even though the persecution is not even close to being what it was in the 1800's, the Chinese food industry is often the best chance of employment for  Chinese immigrants who have not learned to speak English yet, and organizations like the Lin Sing Association help them to resettle in different parts of the United States. In small towns and cities, the only Chinese restaurant is often owned and operated by the only Chinese family in the vicinity. In fact, Cashew chicken which is definitely an Americanized Chinese dish, was created in the early 1940's by the lone Chinese restaurateur in Springfield, Missouri.

One doesn't see too many movies about the origins of Chinese food which is one of the most popular ethnic cuisines in the United States where there are 50,000 Chinese restaurants. Mr. Ian Cheney, the filmmaker/documentarian provides us with a good time as he interviews historians, restaurateurs, chefs, fans of Chinese food, and even a man who was cited by the Guinness Book of World Records for having the world's largest collection of menus from Chinese restaurants.

We didn't realize that for a long time the popularity of Chinese food in the U.S. depended on how our relationship with China was going. Chinese food was very popular during World War II because China was on our side but after the advent of the cold war and the reign of Chairman Mao its popularity took a dip until 1972 when President Nixon took his famous trip to China where he ate authentic Chinese food and drank a toast with Chairman Mao. Immediately after this, Chinese restaurants had record-breaking numbers of customers and the popularity of Chinese food in this country was firmly entrenched.

"The Search for General Tso" is not a great documentary but certainly a very good one so we would like to urge people to give it a view. We looked it up on the internet and found out that it is available to watch on iTunes, Amazon, Time Warner, Comcast, Xfinity, Cox, Charter, Optimum, and VerizonFios.

It was a little sad, though, when an ancestor of the actual General Tso was interviewed because he said that it is a shame that the general, who did a lot for China and Hunan, is known for something that he had nothing to do with. Moreover, the general's ancestor said that the general was proud of Chinese culture and wanted to keep it intact and, as we have written, General Tso Chicken is not a true representation of the culture.

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