Tuesday, April 26, 2016

We Are What We Eat

From childhood on, we are often given the exhortation “you are what you eat,” usually as a caution against bad eating habits. There is another way of using this phrase, one that is not a caution but rather an observation about the informal cultural shifts and customs that are reflected in our food.

The documentary film The Search for GeneralTso provides insights into this alternate view of being what we eat. Ostensibly, the film seeks to answer an old culinary question – what are the origins of the ubiquitous dish “General Tso’s chicken.” The basic questions are rather obvious – who was General Tso? And did he really like chicken? The film demonstrates that this is not necessarily an easy question to answer and that the search for the answer is intimately intertwined with the emergence of Chinese ex-patriot culture and identity.

The beginning of the film travels to China where a variety of people are shown photos of the dish. Those shown the photos are alternately intrigued, perplexed or rather disgusted but regardless their initial response, the consensus is that the dish before them is not Chinese. Indeed, they typically have not seen or heard of the dish before. The next stop is in Hunan province, where the film chronicles the existence of General Tso as a powerful warrior. His familial line still exists and a descendant interviewed is both proud that his ancestor has been recognized so broadly and dismayed at the form of recognition taken – as a food rather than a great warrior. The conclusion of this portion of the film is that there was a General Tso, who could indeed have favoured chicken, but that the dish known across the US was not created by or for him.

From there the quest returns to the US and begins a trek that parallels the steps taken by Chinese immigrants to the US from the 1800s onwards. Here the film presents not only the quest for the origins of General Tso’s chicken but also how the dish – and Chinese immigrant culture and food – was framed by the surroundings in which immigrants found themselves. Discrimination was always rampant against Chinese immigrants and was made worse upon the promulgation of the Chinese Exclusion laws in the US. Discrimination – legal and societal – restricted the career options for Chinese in the US, although one option available was to run and/or work in restaurants. These restaurants cooked what they knew, Chinese cuisine, although with time and the migration of immigrant communities from the West Coast through middle America and to the East Coast this cuisine changed.

Through poignant interviews with those who opened restaurants in different communities or who are second or third generation restaurateurs, the film documents the overall adaptation of foods prepared and offered at Chinese restaurants in the US from authentic Chinese fare to foods that were (and still are) more recognizable and appealing to local palates. This was (and is) done to increase revenue and also to bypass local prejudices regarding culture and food across the spectrum of communities in which Chinese restaurants emerged. In this way, the film chronicles how the food on the menu at Chinese restaurants is a reflection of the cultures in which the restaurateurs find themselves and the struggle to preserve their identities while being accepted by – and acceptable to – their new home.

The film also documents the impact that things beyond the control of these communities had on sought after forms of Chinese cuisine, and on the identity of Chinese-American communities. Through the lens of restaurant culture, the film presents the mechanisms through which Chinese-American communities and food became separate from China itself and were not fully Americanized, leading to the creation of a cuisine that represented the new identity of the community. What emerges in this part of the film is a discussion of other dishes – chop suey for example – as part of the American culinary and cultural lexicon and the adoption of the belief that these dishes form an essential embodiment of Chinese culture.

Returning to the quest for the name, the film’s cross-country journey ends in New York City, where a story of international intrigue over General Tso’s chicken unfolds. Decades ago, a chef at a well-known Chinese restaurant brings back a recipe from Taiwan, incorporates it into his menu and the American General Tso’s chicken is born. He appears on a major television show’s cooking segment and it becomes a sensation in the US. In the international portion of the story, a famous chef who fled to Taiwan creates a chicken dish and is asked the name. In response, he says “General Tso’s chicken” because he is aware of General Tso’s reputation and his own style of cooking from Hunan. Although both the Taiwanese and Americanized version of General Tso’s chicken existed in New York at the same time, ultimately the American version prevailed with consumers.

At the end of the film, the audience has the answer to the question of where General Tso’s chicken originated and how this reflects the reality of societal evolution. It shows the audience the evolution of a culture and set of societal practices from their homeland to their new home and how both places are impacted. By telling the story from China to the US and across the US in a parallel journey to that experienced by Chinese immigrants, the film sheds light on how the norms and mores of a culture are unbound from geography, transplanted and then rewritten to fit the needs of the community in a certain time and place.

Using food as a lens through which this occurs allows the audience a tangible (and edible) visualization of the process and also allows the audience to relate its own experiences along the process spectrum – be they as immigrants, as restaurateurs, or as patrons. These lessons are in varying ways the story of all immigrants and much of the food that comes across anyone’s table. In this way, perhaps the old saying is true and we really are what we eat.

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