Memories of a General

 

Monday Morning Musings:

“First we eat, then we do everything else.”

—M.F.K. Fisher

During Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearing in 2010

Senator Lindsey Graham asked her where she had been on Christmas,

She replied, “You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”*

My niece commenting on getting together with my mom:

“Why does it always have to involve a meal?”

Me: “Because that’s what we do.”

 

I’ve traveled far and wide

with a legendary general,

well, not with him exactly,

but with his namesake,

cubed chicken, crispy-fried,

a sauce of soy, vinegar, and peppers,

slightly sweet and slightly spicy,

The thought, the scent,

a Proustian moment,

sending me back in time.

 

When I was a child

we ate chow mein and lo mein,

Column A and Column B,

“Chinese vegetables,” bamboo shoots and Bok choy,

things we never ate in other dishes,

with a cornstarch thickened sauce.

There was wonton soup and egg rolls

(I still love that hot mustard.)

Lots of food in bowls, on plates.

Now I know “Chinese food” is really Chinese-American food,

And in China, there are many different types of cuisine,

But I didn’t know that when I was young,

nor that fortune cookies were actually Japanese.

 

Chinese food,

created with determination by immigrants,

cultures merging, evolving,

food a gateway,

throughout time.

But tastes change–

for all sorts of reasons,

exposure, access, pop culture

the history of people

the history of food

indelibly tied.

So it goes

and so it happened,

In 1971,

the American Ping-Pong team went to China

And “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” took off

Embargoes on goods and information were removed

President Nixon visited China the following year,

I was in high school then,

discovered with others, the new trends,

Sichuan and Hunan and dumplings and more

dinners at the China Ping Pong Restaurant

where my mom’s cousin knew the owners,

we ate sizzling whole bass cooked in black bean sauce,

and of course, General Tso’s chicken–

Ping Pong diplomacy was delicious.

 

Now, General Tso’s is ubiquitous,

and found in every American Chinese restaurant

But then,

then, it was a novelty.

 

The General makes me think of my father

at his favorite Chinese restaurant

where he was a frequent customer,

such a good customer

that his dish became General Lee’s chicken,

named for him, of course,

extra spicy and with more chicken than broccoli.

My father treated us and our friends to dinners,

many dishes placed on the Lazy Susan

and twirled around for us to try.

Have some more.

Have you tried this?

Could we have some more rice?

No photos, except in my mind,

of these many dinners with my father.

 

Like the Christmas Carol ghost,

the General takes me to another time,

the time a friend of mine came to my house

to watch a video with me,

(no DVDs or Netflix streaming then)

“Girls’ Night,”

she left her children at home

and mine were in bed.

I’ll get Chinese food, I said,

General Tso’s for her to try,

never thinking to warn her.

Hot peppers?

They’re nothing to my family,

But suddenly she was coughing,

and her mouth was burning.

Eat some rice, I said.

And she was fine, really

But you know, I don’t see her anymore.

I wonder.

 

The General still visits us,

and came to call recently.

I had worked hard on a project all day,

And my husband offered to pick up some food,

a local place,

not too far away,

but with a standard menu,

standard for the restaurants in this area,

Well, of course,

he got General Tso’s chicken

(the combination platter)

and I got Mock General Tso’s

(we won’t go off on that tangent)

It was good, not great,

But oh the memories!

 

Jews and Chinese food,

the stuff of jokes, a cliché,

Seinfeld and the Gilmore Girls

(Remember Kirk playing Tevye?)

Or perhaps it’s something else,

I don’t know,

immigrant cultures,

sharing meals, with many courses

sitting together, laughing, eating.

 

And so, the general,

if not comrade in arms,

is a traveling companion of sorts,

taking me to places in my past.

And though he’s been replaced,

no longer my culinary favorite,

he will always have a place in my heart and mind.

 

 

 

Robin of Witless Dating After Fifty started me on this musing. You can thank or blame her.  But do check out her lovely blog.

Note: Today is Labor Day in the U.S. If you want to read about it, here’s my post from last year.

*See a clip in this Atlantic article 

For more information:

Jennifer 8. Lee’s book, Fortune Cookie Chronicles, covers both the origins of fortune cookies and the search for General Tso

There is also a movie The Search for General Tso.

And this  New Yorker article.

 

 

 

 

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36 thoughts on “Memories of a General

  1. Buffalo, with suburbs is fair sized, and there is no shortage of Chinese restaurants, but when I lived there I didn’t mind a 45 minute round trip to a certain place that had great takeout. In the 70s, when driving into Canada didn’t require a passport and was as easy as driving into Buffalo, we would head over to Fort Erie for some great Chinese. Now, I’m in a town of 40,000, with a half-dozen Chinese restaurants, (I’m surprised by the number of all restaurants here, but there’s a sizable outlying rural population.) and I haven’t found a satisfactory one yet. General Tso’s is one of my barometers, and they all fail.

    • There are lots of Chinese restaurants around here, and most of them are so so. But there are also some very good ones. I like restaurants that have something beyond the standard, and that also have interesting vegetarian options. My husband tends to get General Tso’s, but not always. 🙂

  2. I just had a snack of juicy plum and milk chocolate. Now I’m sitting down to write thinking I put too many shakes of red pepper in the macaroni salad.

    Rich amalgam of food, literature and history, your forte, Merril. I did not know Chinese fortune cookies are really Japanese. Lovely to see your fan base growing by leaps and bounds here.

    • Thank you, Marian!
      It sounds like a yummy snack, although I prefer dark chocolate, and I would probably like the extra zing of the red pepper shakes. 🙂
      Jennifer Lee covers the history of fortune cookies, but short version is it seems that some version of them came from Japan. Then during WWII, Chinese restaurants /businesses took over what were formerly Japanese places. Servicemen on the west coast had fortune cookies there, and started asking for them at other Chinese restaurants in the US, and the practice of serving them at Chinese restaurants spread.

  3. Thanks to Robin for this! Your post makes me a little sad because most Chinese restaurant food is off limits to us now that the gardener has celiac. PF Chang’s with its gluten-free dishes is about all we can handle. Faker than fake, although I do love those lettuce wraps.

  4. I was just in Chinatown for lunch today! (peking duck). I never had Chinese food until I moved to NYC as a college student, but it didn’t take long to learn to love it.
    And yes, food and family memories are intertwined, always. (K)

  5. Aww, Merril! I am almost going to respond on the same day you wrote this! 🙂
    I am so glad you explained about the Ping Pong team. I like how you carries this through the years of your life, it’s changes in taste and growth and development. I like how you share the cultures uniting. It was simply a beautiful post and thank you sincerely from the bottom of my heart. ❤

  6. Oh, Merril and Luanne, my youngest daughter and i are so excited about the four new upcoming episodes representative of the four seasons, of “Gilmore Girls.” 🙂 It is one of my exciting upcoming events where I will have to beg, borrow or “steal” since I don’t have the network it will be on: Netflix. “Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall” will be the names of each separate episode like a movie! ❤ Everyone will be there except the father character since his actor died. 😦

    • Too bad you can’t come over and watch, Robin. My younger daughter and I have been discussing this ever since we heard. I think the plan now is to watch it while we eat Thanksgiving leftovers. But since it’s the Gilmore Girls, maybe we’ll have to mix in Chinese food, too. 😉
      It is very sad that Edward Hermann died. I’m glad the others will be on the show.
      I love Netflix. I highly recommend it. We only have the streaming service. We bought a Chromecast device, so we can stream it to our TV.

      • Thanks so much for that sweet thought, Merril. ❤
        I already pay $85 for my cable and think it is a "crime!" Thank you, I almost have my DIL convinced in watching it! 🙂 The year my youngest headed off to college, Rory headed off, too.
        My Felicia is hoping the dark haired young man (Jess) who wrote a book will end up with Rory, not the rich, rather spoiled young man (Logan). It is interesting to know he ended up on "The Good Wife."
        Of course, we love Luke and Lorelei. 🙂

      • I’m wondering if Rory will be with someone new, but the others will simply make appearances. I liked Logan on The Good Wife. And Paris is on How to Get Away with Murder.

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