The Search for General Tso
March 14, 2013

I just spent a week in Arizona and California, where I survived a white-out blizzard in Flagstaff, envied the trees heavy with citrus in Los Angeles, and interviewed a dozen restaurant owners, historians, and economists about one thing: Chinese food.

Owner Fred Wong at Flagstaff’s Grand Canyon Café, where the menu has offered Chinese American chop suey among its classic American comfort foods since the 1940s. Photo courtesy Wicked Delicate Films.

When I’m not at the Tenement Museum, I work as a documentary filmmaker with a production company in Brooklyn. I was out West to gather footage for a feature-length documentary I’m producing, in collaboration with the author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, about the history, development, and popularity of Chinese food in America.

For the film, I’ve interviewed historians, authors, chefs, restaurateurs, and everyday eaters (including this guy, who’s checked in at over 6,000 Chinese restaurants!) about some big topics, including the forces and events that brought Chinese immigrants to the U.S. to begin with, and the barriers they faced. Many early Chinese immigrants entered restaurant work in the first place because of exclusionary laws that gave them few economic options. The film’s working title is The Search for General Tso, a riff on the ubiquitous and totally Americanized dish called General Tso’s Chicken that the film uses to tell a much larger story.

Restaurant owner Tammy Fang serves up General Tso’s Chicken in rural New Mexico. Photo courtesy Wicked Delicate Films.

There end up being a lot of parallels between my work in film, exploring cultural and historical topics, and the work here at the Tenement Museum. The story of Chinese food in America, for instance, begins in the nineteenth century and is very much a story of immigration, entrepreneurship, and adaptation. Topics the Museum knows well! (Did you catch our president’s recent Op-Ed in the Washington Post?)

The Search for General Tso uses food to tell a larger story of immigration and adaptation, and the Museum does this in many ways, too–like on our Foods of the Lower East Side walking and tasting tour, in Schneider’s saloon on our “Shop Life” tour, and on the table in the Rogarshevsky parlor where two loaves of Challah are displayed.

The re-created Rogarshevsky parlor at 97 Orchard Street, with a loaf of challah bread on the table. Photo by Keiko Niwa.

In addition to parallels, there are also some interesting departures. Because of its location and mission here in New York City, the Museum tells urban immigrant stories. The Search for General Tso does spend time in America’s big cities, but the film also explores the immigrant stories found in small-town Chinese restaurants across the country.

In Tucumcari, New Mexico, I met Tammy Fang, owner of the Golden Dragon Restaurant on old Route 66. Tammy’s family is the only Chinese family in town, and she told me, “My friends think I’m crazy! Why not live in San Francisco? Why not Albuquerque? It can feel isolating.”

In Louisiana, I spent a day with Frank and Tommy Wong, Chinese-born brothers who opened restaurants in Hammond and Mandeville, after learning the ropes at their grandmother’s chop suey house in Amarillo, Texas. In his kitchen, Tommy smiled and held up his five fingers, and then curled them into a fist, illustrating his mom’s favorite advice for her five sons: “Together, you’re strong.” Tommy and his brothers also adapted the food they serve, creating a menu that appeals to southern American tastes and uses local ingredients. Think Szechuan alligator and crawfish, and honey-pecan shrimp.

Chef Tommy Wong showing a photo of his mother in the kitchen of Trey Yuen Cuisine of China. Photo courtesy Wicked Delicate Films.

I love the ways in which my two “hats” have enabled me, quite unexpectedly, to become immersed in immigrant stories from America’s big cities and its small towns, and to see how we’re all part of a larger story. The Search for General Tso will be finished this summer, so stay tuned!

—Posted by Amanda Murray