The Search for General Tso
January 16 - 22.
This mouthwateringly entertaining film travels the globe to unravel a captivating culinary mystery. General Tso’s chicken is a staple of Chinese-American cooking, and a ubiquitous presence on restaurant menus across the country. But just who was General Tso? And how did his chicken become emblematic of an entire national cuisine? Director Ian Cheney (King Corn) journeys from Shanghai to New York to the American Midwest and beyond to uncover the origins of this iconic dish, turning up surprising revelations and a host of humorous characters along the way. Told with the verve of a good detective story,The Search for General Tso is as much about food as it is a tale of the American immigrant experience.
Ten years ago, I was en route to the cornfields of Iowa to make King Corn when my best friend and I pulled off the highway for the night somewhere in Ohio. Despite the late hour, a few rooms were available at the Tally Ho-tel, and a Chinese restaurant across the parking lot still had its neon lights on. We settled into the red booths and ordered the usual: General Tso’s Chicken. The owner was friendly, the food was fast and hot, and the only sound was the rumble of trucks on interstate 80 in the distance. Suddenly, something about the loneliness of the place, and the bizarre familiarity of the spicy-sweet ruby-red chicken made us wish we weren’t heading to the cornfields after all. There was a more important question that needed answering: Who the heck was General Tso, and why - in nearly every small town and big city across the American countryside - are we all eating his chicken?
The film idea simmered for a few years while I was busy with other projects, but it was always there. Every town had another reminder, in the form of a Chinese restaurant named Golden Dragon, Wok n Roll, or China Inn, that General Tso was out there, somewhere, waiting for us.
But we never quite got out of the starting blocks, until Jennifer 8. Lee’s book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles came out in 2008. To our delight, it included an entire chapter on our favorite topic, General Tso’s Chicken. We shared a meal (including, of course, the General) with Jenny at 9th avenue’s Grand Szechuan in New York City, and a partnership was born. From the start, it was clear we wouldn’t try to adapt the book into a movie, as the breadth of topics covered in The Fortune Cookie Chronicles would have quickly landed us with an unwieldy 12-part series. And, of course, books are different from movies. But Jenny’s research and contacts - and her occasional translations - would prove invaluable as we set out to follow the trail of General Tso’s Chicken with a video camera.
My first brush with China was a 2nd grade field trip to China— or at least, that’s where they told us we were going. Even my older brother was in on the trick, telling me to pack chewing gum to help with the altitude shift when our plane took off from Boston Logan, bound for a place we called “Peking.” Well, on the appointed day, I showed up with my tiny backpack brimming with chewing gum and spare Velcrosneakers, only to find that the “plane” was our classroom, chairs rearranged to resemble an airplane cabin, a projector set up to show us dusty slides of the Great Wall, the Yangtze, and other strange delights from the land my Grandfather called “the Orient.” I chewed the gum anyway. The entire pack. I can’t remember what we were served for lunch, but there’s a high statistical probability that it was chunks of chicken served with sweet and sour sauce.
It took me 25 years to finally find my way to the real China, this time in search of General Tso’s Chicken, a dish I’d grown up cherishing from sporadic dinners out at funky Polynesian restaurants across New England, where my parents ordered something called a “Pu Pu Platter,” and we kids ordered anything that might resemble Chicken McNuggets. But in Shanghai we got nothing but puzzled looks when we brought out pictures of the General’s famous chicken. “It looks like frog,” said one passer-by. Had they heard of the General? “General Tso? Of course. He’s from Hunan Province.” His real name was General Zuo Zongtang.
What we found in Xiangyin surprised us: Zuo Zongtang was everywhere. In the few short years since Jenny had wandered these streets searching for traces of the famous man behind the chicken, finding mostly bemused looks, pride in Zuo Zongtang had spurred the construction of a giant museum (General Tso’s Museum), a colossal statue and even a special high octane beverage named General Tso’s Liquor. But one thing was clear: their pride had nothing to do with chicken. As Tso’s great-great-great-great grandson told us, in no uncertain terms, “General Tso was a very powerful General. But he did not invent this chicken.”
We’d found the General, but the chicken was not at his side. What was going on here? Was this chicken not from China after all? Had the chicken not crossed the sea? Was this dish, which I’d somehow grown up thinking was a quintessential Chinese delicacy, an American dish?
Through 3+ years of visits to Chinese restaurants and countless interviews with historians, chefs, and opinionated customers, our story finally began to take shape. As it did, I began to better understand what drew me to the project in the first place. The story of General Tso’s Chicken, and the spread of Chinese restaurants across the American countryside provides a fascinating - and okay, often delicious – window into what makes America tick. Tracing the origins of this syrupy-red dish was a surprisingly sobering experience, as I realized how little I knew about the complex history that shapes the food in our take-out boxes. It’s a story tangled with racism and xenophobia, entrepreneurialism and invention, adaptation and assimilation. It’s a story that continues to evolve, as new immigrants arrive every day facing challenges as old as the Gold Rush: learning a language, securing a job, finding a community in a strange new land.
It can be hard to talk about these things - about our country’s own shameful history of excluding and repressing entire groups of people, and about the ever present prejudices that all of us share to some degree - but perhaps food provides an entry point. As American cuisine in all its variations continues to evolve and expand, perhaps there is room for appreciating all the invention, adaptation, struggle and strangeness that goes into creating something as delightfully tasty as General Tso’s Chicken. Trace your favorite dish back to its origins, and you’ll discover a complex history with quite a cast of characters — and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll eat a shocking quantity of deep fried, sweet and spicy chicken to boot.
Ian Cheney grew up in Massachusetts and Maine, and received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University.
After graduate school, Ian directed the short documentary TWO BUCKETS, about a reclusive loner living in the woods of mid-coast Maine. TWO BUCKETS won a WGBH-Boston “6:55” grant and was broadcast on WGBH-Boston in 2006.
From 2003-2006, Ian co-created, co-produced and starred in the feature documentary King Corn, about the role of corn in America’s epidemics of obesity and type-II diabetes. Premiering on PBS’ Independent Lens in 2008, King Corn was released theatrically in 60 cities, awarded a George Foster Peabody Award in 2009, and followed by a short sequel entitled Big River.
Ian subsequently directed the feature documentary The Greening of Southie, about the men and women who built Boston’s first residential green building. Southie aired as the 2008 Earth Day broadcast on The Sundance Channel, was released theatrically in a dozen cities, and was subsequently featured in The New Yorker and on Good Morning America.
Ian’s film Truck Farm explored urban agriculture through the story of an old pickup truck with a garden growing in its bed. Truck Farm screened in over 150 communities, won numerous film festival awards, and inspired a nationwide school garden contest and a fleet of 20+ mobile gardens in cities around the country. The film was broadcast on PBS in 2012.
Ian was also a contributing cinematographer on the Oscar-short-listed documentary Under Our Skin, and was the outreach producer for Kaiulani Lee’s film about pioneering environmentalist Rachel Carson, A Sense of Wonder. In 2011, Ian and longtime collaborator Curt Ellis were given the prestigious Heinz Award for their work in environmental advocacy.
Ian’s film The City Dark is a feature documentary about light pollution and the disappearing night sky. It premiered in competition at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March 2011, and theatrically at New York’s IFC Center in January 2012. A New York Times Critics’ Pick, the film aired nationwide on PBS’ POV and was nominated for a 2013 Emmy for Outstanding Science & Technology Documentary.
Ian’s latest production, The Search for General Tso, a collaboration with author Jennifer 8. Lee, was awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the New York State Council of the Arts, and will premiere at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. Ian is currently at work on three new films: Bluespace, North Stars, and The Translators, a collaboration with author Reif Larsen.
Ian is a co-founder of FoodCorps, an Americorps farm-to-school program aimed at improving school nutrition. He has served on film festival panels and juries including South by Southwest, the Wisconsin Film Festival, and the Camden International Film Festival. Since 2011 he has been a visiting professor of film at the Università degli Studi di Scienze Gastronomiche in Italy. Ian travels frequently to show his films, lead workshops, and give talks about sustainability, astronomy, and the human relationship to the natural world.