Monday Morning Musings:
“First we eat, then we do everything else.”
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.
created with determination by immigrants,
cultures merging, evolving,
food a gateway,
But tastes change–
for all sorts of reasons,
exposure, access, pop culture
the history of people
the history of food
So it goes
and so it happened,
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
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)
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.
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.
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,
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.
General Tso’s Chicken Combination Platter
Mock General Tso’s
Vegetable Spring Roll
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.