I'd like to think a documentary about any morsel of food is like a Magic Eye 5D thing we all used to cross our eyes at as tweens and pretend we saw dolphins jumping. That's probably not the case. A film examining, perhaps, tuna salad would be queasily trifling. The same thing might be said for General Tso's chicken, that soggy Chinese food mainstay masquerading as E1 or S56 or B48 on nearly every flimsy paper Chinese menu in the United States of America. But in the hands of Ian Cheney, the director of the new documentary The Search for General Tso, that breaded gooily coated morsel of cheap chicken flesh does, actually, melt and resolve itself into a surprisingly interesting story.
Like most successful documentaries, the premise for TSFGT is clear to the point of schematic. Cheney sets off to answer a few basic questions:
1) What is General Tso's chicken?
2) Was there a General Tso? a) If so, who was he and where was he from? b) And did he like chicken?
3) How did General Tso's Chicken enter into the canon of American Chinese food? a) Once it did, how was the recipe disseminated to the approximately 41,000 Chinese food restaurants scattered throughout the United States?
Had Cheney merely answered the above questions, the documentary would have been satisfying. Who doesn't want to firmly establish the characteristics of General Tso's Chicken or bitterly trill at the discovery that those treacly sweet misshapen chunks of miserable poultry paired with stout broccoli has almost nothing to do with the original recipe, which was fiery hot and was bereft of florets? Who wouldn't like to tag along as a skeleton crew traipses around Hunan Province to visit the gray hometown of the 19th century Qing Dynasty general who lived and breathed and find out if he really truly and was named General Tso? And to answer 2b, no, no he didn't. He preferred local goose casserole and original flavor beef hoof.
As for the third question, which probably only interests Chinese food nerds and followers of 1960s and 1970s New York ethnic restaurant scene minutiae (like me!), the answer is General Tso's chicken was introduced by chef TT Wang at Shun Lee Dynasty. But he pretty much stole it from a chef in Taipei named Chef Peng who later, trying to ride on the coat-tails of Chef Wang (though the coat was indeed his own) opened his own tragically short-lived restaurant in Manhattan before succumbing to the widely-held but nonetheless fallacious opinion that he was the epigone and Wang the progenitor. Peng returned to Taiwan, where he now lives with his son and calls the profusion of ersatz General Tso's Chicken "nonsense." Many of these questions have already been answered by people like Francis Lam, Fuschia Dunlop, Bonnie Tsui and Andrew Coe, authors all who have explored the MSG-infused Venn Diagram of American Chinese food.
What Cheney does differently is niftily trace the immigration, exclusion, diaspora and evolution of the Chinese experience in America told almost entirely through white cardboard take out boxes and the gnomic neon signs for China Palaces and Inns and Dynasties. But that's not to say the documentary lacks characters. Along the way we meet nearly every author of anything Chinese food related, including writers Bonnie Tsui and Fuschia Dunlop (whose accent really is winning), Andrew Coe, who wrote a tremendous book called Chop Suey, a dapper collector of Chinese food menus named Harley Spiller (he has over 8,000!) and a tax attorney from Los Angeles named David Chan who has eaten at more than 6,000 Chinese food restaurants in America.
There is also a parallel cast of interviewees, so-called primary actors, often second and third generation Chinese immigrants who own and operate the chop suey slinging heart break cafes in bumblefuck nowhere. These men and women — like Tommy Wong from Hammond, Louisiana and Harlan Hi of Sing Lee Chop Sooey House in Phoenix, Arizona — are wonderful melders, expert meddlers and canny peddlers of Americanized Chinese cuisine. As the film makes clear, they are also often the only portal to Asia many of the small towns have. The myriad ways these restaurateurs adapt their native cuisine to minister to the American palate is both ingenious and a little shameful. Often, as in the case of General Tso, the result bears little resemblance to the original recipe. As Ms. Dunlop notes, speaking of the titular dish, "The Hunanese really like mixing sweet and savory foods. Not only have they not really heard of it, it's not the kind of thing they like to eat anyway."
But there's nothing more authentically American than inauthenticity. So that's no great shakes. That no one in China has ever heard of General Tso's Chicken makes for a funny montage but blows no minds. What is enlightening — and the chief pleasure of the film — is how expertly Cheney ties together the current landscape of Chinese restaurants with both the historical discrimination felt by Chinese immigrants and current patterns and practices of immigration.
As Jews were cornered to lending by laws against owning property, so too were the Chinese in America herded towards providing services like food and laundry by the breathtakingly vicious Exclusion Act of 1882, which precluded Chinese immigrants from vast swathes of the labor force. This one act of Congress launched thousands of restaurants and Chinese laundries across the country, as Chinese immigrants sought to outrun the national prejudice. Naturally, that didn't work, but the farther they got from San Francisco, the easier their lot seemed to be. Meanwhile, regional associations would assign and still assign territories to recent immigrants so they would not compete with other Chinese businesses. And thus Cheney answers the enigma of how a China Inn popped up in every rinky dink one stop sign backwoods town.
The documentary doesn't, of course, tell the whole story. Two companion pieces I would recommend are Lauren Hilgers's bracing account of a cook in the New Yorker, and Soul of a Banquet, the stellar documentary about Cecilia Chiang (who appears alongside her son in this film.) But through contemplation and skill, Cheney draws from a cheap piece of meat the ultimately very moving story of hardship and survival, of adaptation and adoption, of heartbreak and upheaval that lies beneath even the most common and cheap take-out meals.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars