Searching for General Tso

Written by: Paul Thompson

Primary Source:  Thornapple CSA

We had an opportunity to mention “Werewolves of London” back when we were celebrating the blue moon in July. We didn’t quote the verse that makes it a “food song”. Warren Zevon reports, “I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand. He was walking through the streets of Soho in the rain. He was looking for a place called Lee Ho Fooks. Gonna’ get himself a big dish of beef Chow Mein.”

“Whoa, there! Slow down, bucko,” both of the astute regular readers of the blog are saying to themselves, if not perhaps exclaiming loudly to the other patrons of the coffee shop where they have opened the Thornapple CSA webpage to read this week’s installment. “We’re not supposed to be doing food songs this year. In 2015, September is food films month.

So I turn immediately to Zevon’s reference to beef Chow Mein. Like Chop Suey before it and almond chicken afterwards, one would have a very difficult time getting a big dish of Chow Mein anywhere in China. This is a thoroughly Westernized dish, served in putatively Chinese restaurants, but having only a very weak connection to actual Chinese cuisine. That connection resides largely in the fact that the ingredients of Chow Mein are chopped prior to being cooked and served, obviating the need to place a knife in the table setting. The dish is probably cooked in a wok at Lee Ho Fooks. The chopping allows for a rapid stove-top cooking process that is common but not universal in some Asian culinary traditions, but one can just as readily use a flat-bottomed Western-style frying pan.

Should your interest be piqued by this, you can explore the history of so-called Chinese food outside China (and mainly in the U.S.A.) in the recent documentary “Searching for General Tso”. General Tso is an actual historical figure from Hunan province, but it is doubtful that he ever enjoyed a dish of the now ubiquitous General Tso’s Chicken. Like Chow Mein, General Tso’s Chicken is a dish that cannot be found in China, though as the filmmaker shows, the dish was developed by a chef from Hunan who wanted to commemorate his native culture while working at a restaurant in Taipai. The dish moved rapidly to some high end Chinese restaurants in New York City, from whence it has spread across America and further abroad. Most of the Western renditions of General Tso’s Chicken bear little similarity to the Taiwanese version, having been transmogrified into something like Chicken McNuggets with a somewhat more tangy version of the sticky “sweet-and-sour” (but mostly sweet) sauce that is also a thoroughly Western adaptation of the pre-chopped cooking style imported into the West when Chinese immigrants flooded into San Francisco during the 19th Century.

My friend Lisa Heldke has written a very nice book that explores the exploitative dimension of this, as the assumption that these dishes actually are Chinese becomes part and parcel of the way that non-White others come to be viewed through stereotypes that ultimately create prejudice and racial profiling. Exotic Appetites goes even deeper when Lisa discusses how the “food adventurer” who seeks “authentic” versions of so-called “foreign foods” also participates in an exclusionary practice that essentializes racial identities. Of course, the verb “essentialize” is much too heavy for the Thornapple blog, so I think we’d better bring this particular tangent to a close right now.

The movie, however, is funny. It conveys quite a bit of information about the history of Asians in America while frequently portraying it through laugh-out-loud ironies, like when the filmmakers go to Hunan province in search of some “authentic” General Tso’s Chicken. My personal favorite is the segment that explores Springfield almond chicken. You can get almond chicken lots of places, but it was created in my birthplace, Springfield, MO. It is, in effect, chicken nuggets covered with gravy. And speaking of choice ironies, I love the Yelp! review of Huapei, my favorite Lansing location for Chinese food, which complains that their version of almond chicken is not authentic.

Not that I would be caught eating almond chicken at Huapei, mind you, so how would I know better?

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Paul Thompson
Paul B. Thompson holds the W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. He formerly held positions in philosophy at Texas A&M University and Purdue University. His research has centered on ethical and philosophical questions associated with agriculture and food, and especially concerning the guidance and development of agricultural technoscience.
Paul Thompson

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