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‘The Search for General Tso’ Is One of the Great Food Documentaries

TV and movie recommendations for the weekend, plus a roundup of the week’s entertainment news

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Tammy Fang,  owner of the Golden Dragon in Tecumcari, New Mexico

This post originally appeared on June 22, 2018, in “Eat, Drink, Watch” — the weekly newsletter for people who want to order takeout and watch TV. Browse the archives and subscribe now.

Welcome to the weekend, a time of limitless possibilities, particularly where TV watching is concerned. Here are three recommendations for things to check out this weekend, plus a roundup of the week’s food-related entertainment news.

A dish that tells a big American story

The Search for General Tso is so much more than a history of the Chinese dish that became a staple of take-out menus across America. This lively 2015 documentary actually offers a concise look at how Chinese immigrants came to America and used food to carve out a niche for themselves in a land where they first faced extreme adversity.

After establishing that the titular sweet-and-sour chicken dish is virtually unknown in China, director Ian Cheney cycles back in time to look at how the first wave of Chinese immigrants in America — many of whom originally came through the Port of San Francisco during the Gold Rush — were drawn to restaurant work as a means of survival. “The Exclusion Act basically forced them out of labor, and so they have to be self-employed,” historian Peter Kwong explains in the film. “And this is where two very important professions came into being: one is providing laundry, one is providing food.”

In the early 20th century, Chinese immigrants started moving out across the country, opening restaurants in cities and towns where there wasn’t much competition. Many of these establishments served items that were tweaked for the American palate, including chop suey, a dish that Jennifer 8. Lee (who’s a producer on the film) describes as a jumble of “meats that Americans recognized accompanied by... these exotic vegetables that are cool, but very much flavorless.” Author Bonnie Tsui also notes, “It’s that foreign-yet-familiar thing that’s really the beginning of what Chinese-American cuisine was.”

General Tso’s didn’t come onto the scene until the late 1960s when a Hunanese chef named Peng Chang-kuei decided to serve an homage to his hometown hero — who, legend has it, was known to love chicken — when he took a job in Taiwan. The owners of Shun Lee Palace in NYC visited the Taiwanese restaurant and loved the dish so much that they started serving a version back in America. That plate of crispy chicken inspired countless knock-offs at Chinese-American restaurants across the country and eventually became, as restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld notes in the intro to the film, one of America’s most popular foods.

The Search for General Tso features cameos from a lot of notable food writers and chefs — including game-changing San Francisco chef Cecilia Chiang and her son, PF Chang’s co-founder Philip Chiang — but the best parts of the documentary are the stories from restaurateurs in small towns about how their businesses have become cornerstones of their communities.

This film is available to rent for $3.99 on Amazon Video, YouTube, iTunes, and Google Play, and you’re probably going to want to spring for a $12 order of General Tso’s chicken (or your favorite Chinese or Chinese-American delicacy) while watching the movie.


Streaming selections du jour

Ed Mitchell in Mind of a Chef

The Mind of a Chef, “Smoke”

Watch it on: Netflix, Amazon Video, iTunes

The gist: If you’re jonesing to watch something in the vein of Netflix’s Ugly Delicious, or are simply looking for some summertime barbecue inspiration, consider giving this Season 1 episode of The Mind of a Chef a spin. It features David Chang pontificating about the glories of smoked meat, plus mini-profiles of country ham legend Alan Benton, whole hog virtuoso Ed Mitchell, and Kansas City institution Oklahoma Joe’s. The episode also has two recipes for red-eye gravy (one from Benton and another from the Momofuku chef), and, apropos of nothing, a visit to the Louisville Slugger factory with Chang and his chef-bro buddy Sean Brock.

The Restaurateur

Watch it on: YouTube, Amazon Video; iTunes

The gist: Eleven Madison Park, the restaurant that just got knocked off the top of the World’s 50 Best list, has had an incredible — and incredibly unusual — run over the last two decades.

This 2009 documentary chronicles the birth of that storied restaurant, back when it was the pet project of NYC hospitality legend Danny Meyer. The film offers a unique glimpse inside the mind of one of the restaurant world’s true legends during one of the most creative periods of his career, and it serves as a vivid time capsule of the Manhattan dining scene in the late ‘90s.

The Restaurateur is also a particularly interesting film to watch now to see just how far the restaurant has come since it was living in the shadow of Tabla, Danny Meyer’s other restaurant in the same building (it closed seven years ago). Watching this short documentary, it’s clear that Eleven Madison Park was always bound for greatness, but prone to drama.

In other entertainment news

Have a great weekend, and if this email newsletter has put you in the mood for Chinese-American food, perhaps consider whipping up Danny Bowien’s broccoli with beef using this recipe.

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