Growing up in the suburbs of New York City back in the 1950s, my family would regularly traipse out for a Chinese (i.e. Chinese-American) dinner. I never looked at the restaurant menu and didn’t notice if General Tso’s Chicken was available. (Guess what, it wasn’t.) Back in my stubbornly ill-informed days about the delights of combining sweet and sour, I had a childish aversion to most Chinese staples, and the only repast I would order on these outings was BBQ spare ribs and Coca-Cola. I didn’t discover the joys of Asian cuisine until college. What a fool! And when I did start chowing down on the finer dishes it offered, it’s not until watching Ian Cheney’s cleverly joyful examination of the dish that I learned what a truly appetizing meal I had been missing.
A Brooklyn-based filmmaker, Cheney has been best known as the producer-director of “The City Dark,” a science-serious, cosmic-encompassing documentary about man’s search for darkness, and as the co-creator of 2007’s “King Corn.” Now he’s back with the whirlwind excursion “The Search for General Tso,” his latest piece of self-directed whimsy since 2011’s “Truck Farm.” It’s a blend of fanciful, cultural detective work and offbeat, culinary road trip, with oodles of nice little touches and shadow-puppet animations that sent me (and the rest of the audience watching it at this year’s AFI DOCS) into giggly moments when I wasn’t smiling at it’s collective, exquisitely edited glow.
Of course, the basic question on Cheney’s mind is two fold: Who was General Tso, and why is his name on this dish of deep-fried dark chicken meat smothered with tangy sauce? And while those questions take him across the U.S.A. and around the world, the filmmaker expands his study into a closer look at the Chinese immigration through the ages, and how this country has shaped and adapted the Asian culture and cuisine into something quite different (or even completely invented) to satisfy Americans’ (mostly bland) taste buds. He does makes the case, quite tastefully, about how food (it could be any nationality, but here it’s a quirky Chinese-American dish) is a means and an end to assimilation into the American cultural experience.
The film cleverly blends tidbits of information and opinion from chefs, food experts (including Jennifer 8. Lee (author of “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,” one of the film’s producers), scholars, historians, restauranteurs, and customers with shots of people randomly making and eating the dish. But it’s way more than a generic talking head experience here. Take, for instance, Harley Spiller, a New Yorker with an appetite for restaurant menus, ten of thousands of them (now part of Canadian university’s collection), as well as a fascinating array of food memorabilia. Useful tools for anyone researching this topic. Or the C.P.A., in searching out the Chinese-American identity, who has visited over 6,000 Chinese restaurants. I think that’s plum (sauce) crazy. There’s also a brief discussion of the shift in immigration policy in the 1960s and President’s Nixon’s 1972 trip to China, both of which spiked an uptick in spicy Chinese food intake in the United States.
When the story shifts overseas, General Tso’s true identity is linked to a 19th century Qing Dynasty officer from Hunan. And while that respected military officer’s fame might be recognized by residents in that part of China, it seems that none of that nation’s entire billion-plus people has ever heard of the eponymous chicken dish, or seen anything resembling it. “It looks like frog,” someone comments. Chop Suey [b. 1900], egg rolls and fortune cookies (all espoused upon during the middle part of the film) are also American-Chinese creations.
I liken Cheney’s humorous obsession in trying to differentiate the facts from the anecdotal evidence to a virologist who might be looking for the origin of a pandemic outbreak. But without the medical seriousness. It’s a fascinating journey that criss-crosses from San Francisco to New York, from New Orleans to Syracuse, with some amusing stops in Tucumcari, New Mexico, Springfield, Missouri, and Flagstaff, Arizona.
The only problem I had with “The Search for General Tso,” and it’s something many of us experience eating Chinese-American food, was that an hour after watching it I was hungry to view it again.