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Jennifer 8. Lee hunts for General Tso

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There are more Chinese restaurants in this country than McDonald's, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Wendy's, combined -- 40,000, actually. Chinese restaurants have played an important role in American history, as a matter of fact. The Cuban missile crisis was resolved in a Chinese restaurant called Yenching Palace in Washington, D.C., which unfortunately is closed now, and about to be turned into Walgreen's. And the house that John Wilkes Booth planned the assassination of Abraham Lincoln is actually also now a Chinese restaurant called Wok 'n Roll, on H Street in Washington. (Laughter) And it's not completely gratuitous, because wok and roll -- Chinese food and Japanese foods, so it kind of works out. And Americans loved their Chinese foods so much they've actually brought it into space. NASA, for example, serves thermal-stabilized sweet-and-sour pork on its shuttle menu for its astronauts.

So, let me present the question to you: If our benchmark for Americanness is apple pie, you should ask yourself, how often do you eat apple pie, versus how often do you eat Chinese food. Right? (Laughter) And if you think about it, a lot of the foods that you think of or we think of or Americans think of as Chinese food are barely recognizable to Chinese, for example: beef with broccoli, egg rolls, General Tso's Chicken, fortune cookies, chop suey, the take-out boxes. For example, I took a whole bunch of fortune cookies back to China, gave them to Chinese to see how they would react. What is this? Should I try it? Try it! What is it called? Fortune cookie. There's a piece of paper inside! (Laughter) What is this? You've won a prize! What is this? It's a fortune! Tasty!

So, where are they from? The short answer is, actually, they're from Japan. And in Kyoto, outside, there are still small family-run bakeries that make fortune cookies, as they did over 100 years ago, 30 years before fortune cookies were introduced in the United States. If you see them side by side, there's yellow and brown. Theirs are actually flavored with miso and sesame paste, so they're not as sweet as our version. So, how did they get to the United States? Well, the short answer is, the Japanese immigrants came over, and a bunch of the bakers introduced them -- including at least one in Los Angeles, and one here in San Francisco called Benkyo-do, which is on the corner of Sutter and Buchanan. They back then, actually, made fortune cookies using very much the similar kind of irons that we saw back in Kyoto.

So, the interesting question is, how do you go from fortune cookies being something that is Japanese to being something that is Chinese? Well, the short answer is, we locked up all the Japanese during World War II, including those that made fortune cookies, so that's the time when the Chinese moved in: kind of saw a market opportunity and took over. (Laughter) So, fortune cookies: invented by the Japanese, popularized by the Chinese, but ultimately consumed by Americans. They are more American than anything else.

Another one of my favorite dishes: General Tso's Chicken -- which, by the way, in the US Naval Academy is called Admiral Tso's Chicken. I love this dish. The original name in my book was actually called The Long March of General Tso, and he has marched very far indeed, because he is sweet, he is fried, and he is chicken -- all things that Americans love. (Laughter) He has marched so far, actually, that the chef who originally invented the dish doesn't recognize it; he's kind of horrified. He's in Taiwan right now. He's retired, deaf and plays a lot of Mahjong. So, he -- after this I showed him, he got up, and he's like, "Mominqimiao," which means, "This is all nonsense." and goes back to play his Mahjong game during the afternoon.

So, another dish. One of my favorites. Beef with broccoli. Broccoli is not a Chinese vegetable; in fact, it is originally an Italian vegetable. It was introduced into the United States in the 1800s, but became popularized in the 1920s and the 1930s. In fact, the Chinese had their own version of broccoli, which is called Chinese broccoli, but right now, what -- they've now discovered American broccoli, and are importing it as a, sort of, exotic delicacy.

I guarantee you, General Tso never saw a stalk of broccoli in his life -- and indeed, that actually was a picture of General Tso. I went to his home town. This is a billboard that says: "Welcome to the birthplace of General Tso." And I went looking for chicken. Finally found a cow -- and did find chicken. Believe it or not, these guys were actually crossing the road. And -- (Laughter) -- I actually found a whole bunch of General Tso's relatives who are still in the little town. This guy is now five generations removed from the General; this guy is about seven. Showed them all the pictures of General Tso Chicken that I showed you, and they're like, we don't know this dish. And then they're like, is this Chinese food? Because it doesn't look like Chinese food to them. But they weren't kind of surprised I traveled around the world to visit them, because in their eyes he is, after all, a famous Qing dynasty military hero. He played an important role in the Taiping rebellion, which was a war started by a guy who thought he was the son of God and the baby brother of Jesus Christ. And caused the war that killed 20 million people -- still the deadliest civil war in the world to this day. So, you know, I realized when I was there, General Tso is kind of a lot like Colonel Sanders in America, in that he's known for chicken and not war. But in China, this guy's actually known for war and not chicken.

But the granddaddy of all the Chinese-American dishes we probably ought to talk about is chop suey, which was introduced around the turn of the 20th century. And according to New York Times, in 1904, there was an outbreak of Chinese restaurants all over town, and "the city has gone 'chop suey' mad." So it took about 30 years before the Americans realized that, whoa, chop suey is actually not known in China. And as this article points out, "The average native of any city in China knows nothing of chop suey." You know, back then it was a way to show that you were sophisticated and cosmopolitan: if you were a guy and you wanted to impress a girl, you could take her out on a chop suey date. I like to say chop suey's the biggest culinary joke that one culture has ever played on another, because chop suey, if you translate into Chinese, means tsap sui, which, if you translate back, means "odds and ends." So, these people are going around China asking for chop suey, which is sort of like a Japanese guy coming here and saying, I understand you have a very popular dish in your country called "leftovers," and it is particularly -- (Laughter) -- right? And not only that: this dish is particularly popular after that holiday you call Thanksgiving. (Laughter)

So, why -- why and where -- did chop suey come from? Let's go back to mid-1800s when the Chinese first came to America. Now back then, the Americans were not clamoring to eat Chinese food. In fact, they saw this people who landed at their shores as alien. These people weren't eating dogs -- they were eating cats -- and they weren't eating cats -- they were eating rats. In fact, the New York Times, my esteemed employer, in 1883 ran an article that asked, "Do Chinese eat rats?" And not the most PC question to be asked today, but if you kind of look at the popular imagery of the time, not so outlandish. This is actually a real advertisement for rat poison from the late 1800s, and if you see, under the word "Clears" -- very small -- it says, "They must go," which refers not only to the rats, but to the Chinese in their midst, because the way that the food was perceived was that these people who ate foods different from us must be different from us.

And another way that you saw, sort of, this sort of, this antipathy towards the Chinese is through documents like this. This is actually in the Library of Congress; it is a pamphlet published by Samuel Gompers, hero of our American labor movement, and it's called, "Some Reason for Chinese Exclusion: Meat versus Rice: American Manhood against Asiatic Coolieism: Which shall survive? And it basically made the argument that Chinese men who ate rice would necessarily bring down the standard of living for American men who ate meat. And as a matter of fact, then, this is one of the reasons why we must exclude them from this country So, with sentiments like these, the Chinese Exclusion Act was sort of passed between 1882 and 1902, the only time in American history when a group was specifically excluded for its national origin or ethnicity. So, in a way, because the Chinese were attacked, and chop suey was created as a defense mechanism.

Now, who came up with the idea of chop suey? There's a lot of different mysteries, a lot of different legends, but of the ones that I've found that I thought was most interesting is this article from 1904. A Chinese guy named Lem Sen shows up in Chinatown, New York City, and says, I want you guys all to stop making chop suey, because I am the original creator and sole proprietor of the dish known as chop suey. And the way that he tells it, there was a guy, there was a famous Chinese diplomat that showed up, and he was told to make a dish that looked very popular and could, quote, "pass" as Chinese. And as he said -- we would never print this today -- but basically, the American man has become very rich. Lem Sen, who's this guy: I would have made this money, too, but I've spent all this time looking for the American man who stole my recipe. Now I've come and found him, and I want my recipe back and I want everyone to stop making chop suey, or pay me for the right to do the same. So it was an early exercise of intellectual property rights.

So the things is, this kind of idea of Chinese-American food doesn't exist only in America. In fact, if you think about it, Chinese food is the most pervasive food on the planet, served on all seven continents, even Antarctica, because Monday night is Chinese food night at McMurdo Station, which is the main scientific station in Antarctica. So, you see different varieties of Chinese food. For example, there is French Chinese food, where they serve salt and pepper frog legs. There is Italian Chinese food, where they don't have fortune cookies, so they serve fried gelato. My downstairs neighbor, Alessandra, was completely shocked when I told her, "Dude, fried gelato is not Chinese." She's like, "It's not? But they serve it in all the Chinese restaurants in Italy." (Laughter) And even the Brits have their own version. This is a dish called crispy shredded beef, which has a lot of crisp, a lot of shred, and not a lot of beef. There is West Indian Chinese food, there's Jamaican Chinese food, there is Middle Eastern Chinese food, there's Mauritian Chinese food. This is a dish called Magic Bowl that I discovered. There's Indian Chinese food, Korean Chinese food, Japanese Chinese food, where they take the bao, the little buns, and they make them into pizza versions, and they take -- and they -- like, totally randomly they'll take Chinese noodle dishes, and they'll just Ramen-ize them. This is, like, this is something that in the Chinese version has no soup. So, there's Peruvian Chinese food, which should not be mixed with Mexican Chinese food, where they basically take things and make it look like fajitas. And then -- one thing: they have things like risotto chop suey. My personal favorite of all the restaurants I've encountered around the world was this one in Brazil, called "Kung Food." (Laughter)

So, let's take a step back, and kind of, understand what is to be appreciated in America. McDonald's has, sort of, garnered a lot of attention, a lot of respect, for basically standardizing the menu, décor and dining experience in post-World War II America. But you know what? They actually did so through a centralized headquarters out of Illinois, right? Chinese restaurants have done largely the same thing, I would argue, with the menu and the décor -- even the restaurant name -- but without a centralized headquarters. So, this actually became very clear to me with the March 30, 2005 Powerball drawing, where, you know, they expected, based on the number of ticket sales they had, to have three or four second-place winners -- those are the people who match five or six Powerball numbers. Instead, they had 110, and they were completely shocked.

They looked all across the country, and discovered it couldn't necessarily be fraud, because it happened, you know, in different states, across different computer systems. So whatever it was, it caused people to sort of behave in a mass synchronized way. So, like, OK, maybe it had to do with the patterns on the little pieces of paper -- you know, like, it was a diamond, or, you know, diagonal. It wasn't that. It wasn't that, so they're like, OK, let's look at television, so they looked at an episode of Lost. Now, I don't have a TV, which makes me a freak, but very productive, and -- (Laughter) -- and this episode of Lost, I understand, was over a white guy's lucky number which was not a lucky number, which was how long they'd been on the island, but they looked, and the numbers did not match. so they looked at The Young and The Restless, and it wasn't that, either. So, it wasn't until the first guy shows up the next day, and they ask him, "Where did you get your number from?" He's like, "Oh, I got it from a fortune cookie." This actually is a slip that one of the winners had, because the Tennessee lottery security officials were like, oh, no -- like, this can't be true. But it was true, and basically, of those 110 people, and 104 of them or so had gotten their number from the fortune cookie. (Laughter)

Yeah. So, I went and started looking. I went across the country, looking for these restaurants where these people had gotten their fortune cookies from. You know, there are a bunch of them, including Lee's China in Omaha -- which is actually run by Koreans, but that's another point -- and a bunch of them named China Buffet. So, what's interesting is that their stories were similar, but they were different. It was lunch, it was take-out, it was sit-down, it was buffet, it was three weeks ago, it was three months ago. But at some point, all these people had a very similar experience that converged at a fortune cookie and at a Chinese restaurant, and all these Chinese restaurants were serving fortune cookies, which, of course we know, aren't even Chinese to begin with. So it's kind of part of the phenomenon I called spontaneous self-organization, right, where, like in ant colonies, where little decisions made by -- on the micro-level actually have a big impact on the macro-level.

So, a good sort of contrast is Chicken McNuggets. McDonald's actually spent 10 years coming out with a chicken-like product. They did chicken pot pie, they did fried chicken, and then they finally introduced Chicken McNuggets. And the great innovation of Chicken McNuggets was not nuggetfying them, because that's kind of an easy concept, but the trick behind Chicken McNuggets was, they were able to remove the chicken from the bone in a cost-effective manner, which is why it took so long for other people to copy them. It took 10 years, and then within a couple of months, it was such a hit they just introduced it and rolled it across the entire system of McDonald's in the country.

In contrast, we have General Tso's Chicken, which actually started in New York City in the early 1970s, as I was also starting in the university in New York City in the early 1970s, so ... And this logo! So me, General Tso's Chicken and this logo are all cosmically related. But that dish also took about 10 years to spread across America from a random restaurant in New York City. Someone's like, oh, God -- it's sweet, it's fried, it's chicken: Americans will love this.

So, what I like to say, you know, this being sort of Bay Area, Silicon Valley -- is that we think as McDonald's as sort of the Microsoft of the dining experiences. We can think of Chinese restaurants perhaps as Linux: sort of an open source thing, right, where ideas from one person can be copied and propagated across the entire system; that there can be specialized versions of Chinese food, you know, depending on the region. For example, you know, in New Orleans we have Cajun Chinese food, where they serve Sichuan alligator and sweet and sour crawfish, right? And in Philadelphia, you have Philadelphia cheesesteak roll, which looks like an egg roll on the outside, but a cheesesteak on the inside. I was really surprised to discover that, not only in Philadelphia, but also in Atlanta, because what had happened was that a Chinese family had moved from Atlanta to -- sorry, from Philadelphia to Atlanta, and brought that with them.

So, the thing is, our historical lore, because of the way we like narratives, are full of vast characters such as, you know, Howard Schultz of Starbucks and Ray Kroc with McDonald's and Asa Chandler with Coca-Cola. But, you know, it's very easy to overlook the smaller characters -- oops -- for example, like Lem Sen, who introduced chop suey, Chef Peng, who introduced General Tso Chicken, and all the Japanese bakers who introduced fortune cookies. So, the point of my presentation is to make you think twice, that those whose names are forgotten in history can often have had as much, if not more, impact on what we eat today. So. Thank you very much.

About The Speaker

Jennifer 8. Lee
The possessor of the best byline in the New York Times, Jennifer 8. Lee reports on culture and city life. Her latest book is The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. Full bio and more links

About This Talk

Reporter Jennifer 8. Lee talks about her hunt for the origins of familiar Chinese-American dishes -- exploring the hidden spots where these two cultures have (so tastily) combined to form a new cuisine.

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