Who in the Hunan is General Tso?


I popped into Chan An for a bite of hot lunch, and ordered my fav-- General Tso's chicken. The pretty, delicate young lady behind the counter took my order. Then shouted back to the cook in Chinese with a bellow that cracked the plaster.

It's always surprising, that bellow. Especially to new customers. I watch people give her their order, and then wait for 'em to jump in the air and cling to the ceiling fan as she blasts out the good word on their dish.

I like it. Helping people off the ceiling fan gives me something to do while I wait for my food.

So, as I gave nice Mrs. Johnston a leg down from the rafters, it occurred to me. "Who IS General Tso, and why am I eating his chicken?"

I had never considered this before. Possibly because it had just seemed perfectly right. Colonel Sanders... General Tso...

Military status + crispy chicken = yum

It seemed to span cultures.

So while I enjoyed delicious crispy chicken back at the office, I did some in-depth research...

NO, not Wikipedia. Hey, I'm serious about my research and believe in using solid sources. (Also, that was later.)

I went to the Encyclopedia Britannica, a reputable publication where the entry is unlikely to have been written by someone with the username "TsoFanNumeroUno." And Britannica tells us that the man who inspired the dish was none other than Tso Tsung-t'ang. Also known as "Zuo Zongtang."

"Steve" to his buds.

Truthfully, the entry was pretty dry. Unlike that sweet, sweet chicken. So to hold your interest, I'm going to take some liberties and paraphrase here.

And you kiddies out there writing reseach reports using just whatever internet site you find as your sources? You'll want to copy this all down word-for-word and turn it into your teachers as-is. Your teachers will love it. And will probably share your work with all their colleagues in the teacher's lounge.

It'll be a learning experience for everyone.

Okay, back to General Tso. General Tso didn't start out his career a general. Yes, he started out as simply Tso, a guy born into "a well-connected, scholarly family." So basically tenured university professors with a good pension plan.

He passed his preliminary civil service exams, and concentrated on farming studies and geography. This means he was more or less a desk-jockey at the Hsiang-yin Department of Agriculture.

Then in 1850, the Taiping Rebellion began to spread through South China. And so like "Sean of the Dead" only without the zombies, Tso realized he had to take action. He organized the local defenses to rise up and protect the region. And because folks who mattered were still alive when the dust cleared, they said, "Tso, we really like your style."

For his good work, he became one of the top imperial commanders, and eventually Governor-General of Chekian and Fukien.

This made him VERY big in China. Big enough to hold press conferences and everything.

Soon, his role expanded to governor-general of Sheshi and Kansu, because there were Muslim rebels that need quashing, and Tso had proven his mad skilz in the quashing arena.

How'd he do this? Well, remember, Tso had started his career as a civil servant. And what do civil servants like to do most?

Why, slap down some hefty taxes, that's what! So he taxed these people. And he also encouraged economic production, and introduced Western technology. I'm guessing it probably had something to do with an automated online tax collection system, but Britannica doesn't go into the details.

And to finance his troops? Tso put them to work in their spare time, growing grain and cotton. Because, you know, they were on the clock, anyway, and there weren't unions then.

But, Tso kept it going. Stopping a rebellion here, a rebellion there. By 1881, he was this old, blind guy who just wanted to retire, get his gold watch and his office party with cake. You know give a couple of slurred and tearful speeches after putting away too many Tsingtaos.

But they government wouldn't let him. He was sent off to South China to defend the country against the French. And that's where he died.

So where does the chicken come in? Well, that's an interesting story in itself. See, every time Tso would go up against a new group of rebels, the rebel fighters would underestimate his tactical abilities because he'd started out as a mid-level office executive. And so to boost the rebel morale, they'd all chorus, "General Tso's chicken! General Tso's chicken!"

Of course, they were defeated every time. Which is why General Tso's chicken is not only sweet, for the sweet victory he enjoyed, but spicy, because his tactics had an unexpected kick.

And if you believe that, I have a chunk of Great Wall to sell ya.


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The offices at Humor-blogs are filled with empty Chinese food containers. I know it.

8 comments:

Alice said...

BoyChild and I LOVE his chicken too! I'll keep this in mind for BoyChild's next book report. I can just feel the "Chinese Military Report" coming soon.

renalfailure said...

Well at least you refrained from the obvious "General Tso's Kitten" joke.

Jenn Thorson said...

Alice- It's exciting to hear that this blog is helping to expand the minds of today's youth.

Um... "Of Cabbages and Kings is not responsible for poor grades, loss of 'rep' among classmates or swirlies as a result of anything printed here. Thank you."

--The Management

~Static~ said...

So let me get this right... you mistrust wikipedia's accuracy (a travesty!), Gen. Tso's chicken was not named so because he used chickens for numchuks, and then this entire story was made up anyway?

Well, you need to trust uncylopedia (the only source that can be trusted on the net). Uncyclopedia gives the real version of Gen. Tso's life
http://uncyclopedia.org/wiki/General_Tso

Or not.

Greg said...

Oh, I do love the General's chicken, even if I'm a little leary of finding out just what *part* of the chicken it was.

I suppose we (and the good folks who run all those great Chinese food places) can be grateful it wasn't called Fukien Chicken, eh?

Or perhaps it was, first.

Jenn Thorson said...

Renalfailure- 1.), sorry to hear about your, umn, ill health, and 2.) General Tso's kitten-- HM, I actually HAVEN'T heard that one... So it was only pure luck I missed it. Woo-hoo!

Jenn Thorson said...

Static- I will have to check out uncyclopedia for General Tso: the Untold Story.

And I never said Tso didn't use chickens for numchucks. But Britannica can only focus on so much per entry. :)


Greg- I don't care what it's made of. Kittens, capons, other things that start with a Kuh- sound... I don't care. It is still happy chickeny goodness to me.

Hey, what does Captain Picard say when he orders out for Chinese? "Make it Tso."

HAHAHAHA! (Me, running quickly away now.)

rht66 said...

Very clever story Jenn. Of course now I will have to ask my favorite Chinese restaurant owner if she knows anything about Tao's origins, which will make for a nice conversation. We don't go there too often but my B-Day is around the bend. Since there's not an abundant source of good Asian food here in N.W. Alabama, it's kind of become a tradition to go to this one establishment for my birthday and other special occasions.