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Who Was General Tso?

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Zuo Zongtang (sometimes written as Zu? Z?ngtáng or Tso Tsung-t'ang) was one of the greatest military leaders of China’s long and storied history. He rose quickly through the ranks of the army, quelled rebellions, served with distinction in a civil war, founded a modern arsenal and dockyard, established new, efficient logistics systems within his armies, forced Russian forces from China, and went on to serve in several positions in the national government.


In the West, particularly the U.S. and Canada, we know him simply as General Tso, namesake of a Chinese takeout chicken dish.

Tso It Goes

Zuo was born in 1812 in Hsiangyin, Hunan, to a family of wealthy landowners.

His family’s money allowed him to pursue an extensive education; he was able to obtain a chu-jen ( “promoted scholar”), the second-highest academic degree awarded in the imperial civil service exams. He made three attempts to qualify for the highest degree, chin-shih (“ready for office”) and failed each time. He gave up hope for work in the imperial bureaucracy and returned to Hunan. There, he worked as a tutor for the family of a former governor general, got married, and pursued a variety of quiet interests. He farmed silkworms and tea, wrote a book on agriculture, read about the sciences, and studied politics. He referred to himself as “The Husbandman of the River Hsiang.”

In 1850, a civil war known as the Taiping Rebellion broke out between the forces of Hong Xiuquan and the governing Qing Dynasty. Xiuquan, a convert to Christianity who claimed to have received visions that revealed him as the son of God and the younger brother of Jesus Christ, had established Taiping Heavenly Kingdom and taken control of a large swath of southern China. He attempted to replace the country’s indigenous religions with his own form of Christianity and enact social reforms in line with his ideology.

Two years into the war, Zuo was hired as an advisor by the staff of the governor of Hunan and given full control over the province’s military. The peaceful silkworm farmer turned out to be a gifted and ruthless soldier, and earned comparisons to his contemporary, Union general William Tecumseh Sherman.

Zuo drove the Taiping rebels out of Hunan and then the neighboring Guangxi province, followed them into coastal Zhejiang (after his victory there, he was appointed governor of the province and an Undersecretary of War) then south into Fujian and Guangdong, the seat of the rebellion. There, he dethroned the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom’s teenage monarch and crushed the rebellion.

The following year, he was appointed Viceroy and Governor-General of Fujian and Zhejiang provinces and Commissioner of the Naval Industries. In this capacity, he created the Goochow Arsenal, China's first modern arsenal, shipyard and naval academy. Appointments to the offices of Viceroy and Governor-General of Shaanxi and Gansu provinces and Imperial Commissioner of the Army in Shaanxi would follow.

Zuo returned to the battlefield to suppress the Nien Rebellion in northern China, then marched west to defeat the Dungan Revolt. Later, he quashed an uprising of foreign Muslims led by Muhammad Yaqub Bek and negotiated an end to the Russian occupation of the western border city of Ili. Supposedly, he managed all these victories while also suffering through recurring bouts of malaria and dysentery.

For his service to the Empire, Zuo appointed a Grand Secretary and later a Marquessate. For his final promotion, he was appointed to the Grand Council, the cabinet of the Qing Empire. Zuo quickly tired of imperial politics and requested to be relieved of his position. He did return once more to the military when the Sino-French War broke out—he was commissioned as Commander-in-Chief and Imperial Commissioner of the Army and Inspector General. He oversaw coastal defense through the war and died shortly after a truce was reached, in 1885.

Which Came First: the Chicken or the General?

Image credit: Jennifer 8. Lee

Zuo’s life as a military hero is well documented (there’s even a billboard on the road going into his hometown that features his likeness), but his connection to the chicken dish named after him is a different story. Food historians know this much for sure: the dish is a loose interpretation of an old Hunan dish called chung ton gai (“ancestor meeting place chicken” or “ancestral meeting hall chicken”). After that, it’s all a matter of whom you ask.

I’d like to believe that General Tso’s chicken might have been prepared by Zuo himself in the field, or cooked for him by an admirer after a triumphant return from battle. It would make a great story—but there’s no evidence that the dish ever passed through the general's lips, or his pained bowels. Furthermore the general was known as a picky eater and the dish is atypical of Hunan cuisine. Zuo was more of a pork guy than a chicken guy, anyway. When he was sent to the Muslim-majority Xinjang province on a military expedition, his pork intake was curtailed. Upon his return, a feast was served in celebration and he supposedly told his hosts that, while he wasn’t entertained with the musicians and dancers, the meal more than made up for the long, pork-less expedition.

There are several different histories of how the dish was invented, and why it bears the general's name. These stories all start with the Chinese diaspora. One thing we have to keep in mind when talking about General Tso and his chicken is that the Taiping Rebellion was the greatest upheaval of 19th-century China (as well as the bloodiest civil war in history). It caused massive population displacements and shifts across the southern and eastern parts of the country. Hundreds of thousands of people fled to other regions of China or left entirely. Many came to the United States, and one origin story goes that these immigrants, to honor the sword skills of the imperial hero from the homeland, chopped up their chicken the way that Tso might have sliced and diced his enemies. The dish’s flavors are explained as the hot, spicy tastes of Zuo’s Hunanese cuisine colliding with the sweet tastes preferred by the primarily Cantonese immigrants.

Or Maybe Chef Peng Chang-kuei Was Responsible

Another creation story, one of the most widely spread, gives credit to Chef Peng Chang-kuei (a.k.a. Peng Jia). Peng, like Zuo, was born in Hunan in 1919. He trained under a chef who worked for a provincial government official. Through this apprenticeship and connections to government gourmand, Peng found himself in charge of Nationalist government banquets by the end of World War II. When civil war broke out and Mao Zedong’s Soviet-backed Communist forces took control of the country in 1949, Peng fled with the Nationalists to Taiwan.

In Taiwan, Peng continued to cater official functions, and he invented many new dishes. According to Peng, at some point in the mid-1950s, he created an especially hot dish with typically Hunanese flavors and named it in honor of the second-most-famous military man from his home province. Why didn’t he name if for the first-most-famous? Because that was Mao Zedong, the man who’d caused his exile.

In the 1970s, Peng came to America and opened up a restaurant in New York. It was popular enough, but Hunanese food was pretty unknown in the United States. It didn’t really catch on until one fan began talking the place up. Peng had set up shop near the United Nations building and, one day, Henry Kissinger stopped by for a meal. He loved it, visiting Peng’s every time he was in New York and singing the chef’s praises in Washington and around the world. Peng’s American customers still didn’t take to the heat and spice of Hunanese food, though, so Peng invented new dishes and adapted old ones to better suit American tastes.

One major change to General Tso’s chicken was the addition of sugar to the sauce, resulting in something a little bit closer to the General Tso’s chicken we know today. Several other Chinese immigrant cooks in New York, most notably T.T. Wang, have also claimed they invented the dish around the same time (and in more or less the same manner).


Of course, the new dish wasn’t too close to what you and I indulge in today. General Tso’s as most of us know it is completely unrecognizable to Peng, altered in every way imaginable by countless Chinese American cooks. When author Jennifer 8. Lee went to China to research her book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, she met Chef Peng and showed him a number of photos of different American interpretations of his most famous dish. When they got to the version from a restaurant in New Hampshire that featured baby corn and carrots, Peng called it moming-qimiao—nonsense—and almost stormed out.

When Peng brought his version of the dish to Chinese diners with a new restaurant in Hunan in 1990, it was panned as being too sweet. More recently, though, Hunanese chefs and foodies have started to come around to General Tso’s chicken. Whether they like it or not, it’s the one Hunanese dish everyone has heard of since the General conquered the world.

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Food
The Gooey History of the Fluffernutter Sandwich

Open any pantry in New England and chances are you’ll find at least one jar of Marshmallow Fluff. Not just any old marshmallow crème, but Fluff; the one manufactured by Durkee-Mower of Lynn, Massachusetts since 1920, and the preferred brand of the northeast. With its familiar red lid and classic blue label, it's long been a favorite guilty pleasure and a kitchen staple beloved throughout the region.

This gooey, spreadable, marshmallow-infused confection is used in countless recipes and found in a variety of baked goods—from whoopie pies and Rice Krispies Treats to chocolate fudge and beyond. And in the beyond lies perhaps the most treasured concoction of all: the Fluffernutter sandwich—a classic New England treat made with white bread, peanut butter, and, you guessed it, Fluff. No jelly required. Or wanted.

There are several claims to the origin of the sandwich. The first begins with Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere—or, not Paul exactly, but his great-great-great-grandchildren Emma and Amory Curtis of Melrose, Massachusetts. Both siblings were highly intelligent and forward-thinkers, and Amory was even accepted into MIT. But when the family couldn’t afford to send him, he founded a Boston-based company in the 1890s that specialized in soda fountain equipment.

He sold the business in 1901 and used the proceeds to buy the entire east side of Crystal Street in Melrose. Soon after he built a house and, in his basement, he created a marshmallow spread known as Snowflake Marshmallow Crème (later called SMAC), which actually predated Fluff. By the early 1910s, the Curtis Marshmallow Factory was established and Snowflake became the first commercially successful shelf-stable marshmallow crème.

Although other companies were manufacturing similar products, it was Emma who set the Curtis brand apart from the rest. She had a knack for marketing and thought up many different ways to popularize their marshmallow crème, including the creation of one-of-a-kind recipes, like sandwiches that featured nuts and marshmallow crème. She shared her culinary gems in a weekly newspaper column and radio show. By 1915, Snowflake was selling nationwide.

During World War I, when Americans were urged to sacrifice meat one day a week, Emma published a recipe for a peanut butter and marshmallow crème sandwich. She named her creation the "Liberty Sandwich," as a person could still obtain his or her daily nutrients while simultaneously supporting the wartime cause. Some have pointed to Emma’s 1918 published recipe as the earliest known example of a Fluffernutter, but the earliest recipe mental_floss can find comes from three years prior. In 1915, the confectioners trade journal Candy and Ice Cream published a list of lunch offerings that candy shops could advertise beyond hot soup. One of them was the "Mallonut Sandwich," which involved peanut butter and "marshmallow whip or mallo topping," spread on lightly toasted whole wheat bread.

Another origin story comes from Somerville, Massachusetts, home to entrepreneur Archibald Query. Query began making his own version of marshmallow crème and selling it door-to-door in 1917. Due to sugar shortages during World War I, his business began to fail. Query quickly sold the rights to his recipe to candy makers H. Allen Durkee and Fred Mower in 1920. The cost? A modest $500 for what would go on to become the Marshmallow Fluff empire.

Although the business partners promoted the sandwich treat early in the company’s history, the delicious snack wasn’t officially called the Fluffernutter until the 1960s, when Durkee-Mower hired a PR firm to help them market the sandwich, which resulted in a particularly catchy jingle explaining the recipe.

So who owns the bragging rights? While some anonymous candy shop owner was likely the first to actually put the two together, Emma Curtis created the early precursors and brought the concept to a national audience, and Durkee-Mower added the now-ubiquitous crème and catchy name. And the Fluffernutter has never lost its popularity.

In 2006, the Massachusetts state legislature spent a full week deliberating over whether or not the Fluffernutter should be named the official state sandwich. On one side, some argued that marshmallow crème and peanut butter added to the epidemic of childhood obesity. The history-bound fanatics that stood against them contended that the Fluffernutter was a proud culinary legacy. One state representative even proclaimed, "I’m going to fight to the death for Fluff." True dedication, but the bill has been stalled for more than a decade despite several revivals and subsequent petitions from loyal fans.

But Fluff lovers needn’t despair. There’s a National Fluffernutter Day (October 8) for hardcore fans, and the town of Somerville, Massachusetts still celebrates its Fluff pride with an annual What the Fluff? festival.

"Everyone feels like Fluff is part of their childhood," said self-proclaimed Fluff expert and the festival's executive director, Mimi Graney, in an interview with Boston Magazine. "Whether born in the 1940s or '50s, or '60s, or later—everyone feels nostalgic for Fluff. I think New Englanders in general have a particular fondness for it."

Today, the Fluffernutter sandwich is as much of a part of New England cuisine as baked beans or blueberry pie. While some people live and die by the traditional combination, the sandwich now comes in all shapes and sizes, with the addition of salty and savory toppings as a favorite twist. Wheat bread is as popular as white, and many like to grill their sandwiches for a touch of bistro flair. But don't ask a New Englander to swap out their favorite brand of marshmallow crème. That’s just asking too Fluffing much.

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The Hospital in the Rock
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History
Budapest’s Former Top-Secret Hospital Inside a Cave
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The Hospital in the Rock

At the top of a hill in Budapest, overlooking the Danube River, sits Buda Castle, a gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage site visited by thousands of tourists every year. Directly underneath the castle, however, lies a less-frequented tourist attraction: a series of ancient, naturally formed caves with a colorful and sometimes disturbing history.

The entire cave system is over six miles long, and most of that has been left unchanged since it was used as cold storage (and a rumored dungeon) in the Middle Ages. Between 1939 and 2008, however, a half-mile stretch of those caves was built up and repurposed many times over. Known as Sziklakorhaz or The Hospital in the Rock, its many uses are a testament to the area’s involvement in World War II and the Cold War.

At the start of World War II, the location served as a single-room air raid center, but operating theaters, corridors, and wards were quickly added to create a much-needed hospital. By early 1944, the hospital had officially opened inside the cave, tending to wounded Hungarian and Nazi soldiers. After less than a year of operation, the facility found itself facing its largest challenge—the Siege of Budapest, which lasted seven weeks and was eventually won by Allied forces on their way to Berlin.

As one of the few area hospitals still operational, the Hospital in the Rock was well over capacity during the siege. Originally built to treat around 70 patients, close to 700 ended up crammed into the claustrophobic caves. The wounded lay three to a bed—if they were lucky enough to get a bed at all. Unsurprisingly, heat from all those bodies raised the ambient temperature to around 95°F, and smoking cigarettes was the number one way to pass the time. Add that to the putrid mix of death, decay, and infection and you’ve got an incredibly unpleasant wartime cocktail.

A recreation inside the museum. Image credit: The Hospital in the Rock 

After the siege, the Soviets took control of the caves (and Budapest itself) and gutted the hospital of most of its supplies. Between 1945 and 1948, the hospital produced a vaccination for typhus. As the icy grasp of the Cold War began to tighten, new wards were built, new equipment was installed, and the hospital was designated top-secret by the Soviets, referred to only by its official codename LOSK 0101/1.

Eleven years after facing the horrors of the Siege of Budapest, in 1956, the hospital hosted the casualties of another battle: The Hungarian Uprising. Thousands of Hungarians revolted against the Soviet policies of the Hungarian People’s Republic in a fierce, prolonged battle. Civilians and soldiers alike lay side-by-side in wards as surgeons attempted to save them. During the uprising, seven babies were also born in the hospital.

Surgeons lived on-site and rarely surfaced from the caves. The hospital’s chief surgeon at the time, Dr. András Máthé, famously had a strict "no amputation" rule, which seemed to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, but in the end reportedly saved many patients' lives. (Máthé also reportedly wore a bullet that he’d removed from a patient’s head on a chain around his neck.)

The Hospital in the Rock ceased normal operations in December 1956, after the Soviets squashed the uprising, as the Soviets had new plans for the caves. With the Cold War now in full swing, the still-secret site was converted into a bunker that could serve as a hospital in case of nuclear attack. Diesel engines and an air conditioning system were added in the early '60s, so that even during a blackout, the hospital could still function for a couple of days.

The Hospital in the Rock

The official plan for the bunker was as follows: In the event of a nuclear attack, a selection of doctors and nurses would retreat to the bunker, where they would remain for 72 hours. Afterward, they were to go out and search for survivors. Special quarantined rooms, showering facilities, and even a barbershop were on site for survivors brought back to the site. (The only haircut available to them, however, was a shaved head; radioactive material is notoriously difficult to remove from hair.)

Thankfully, none of these nuclear procedures were ever put into practice. But the hospital was never formally decommissioned, and it wasn’t relieved of its top-secret status until the mid-2000s. For a while, it was still being used as a storage facility by Hungary’s Civil Defense Force. The bunker was maintained by a nearby family, who were sworn to secrecy. In 2004, it was decided that responsibility for the site fell solely on St. John’s Hospital in Budapest, who were seen as the de facto owners in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

By 2008 the bunker was renovated, refurbished, and ready to be opened to the public. Today it operates as a museum, with exhibits detailing life in the hospital from various periods of its history, as well as the history of combat medicine as a whole. The sobering hour-long walk around the hospital concludes with a cautionary gaze into the atrocities of nuclear attacks, with the final walk to the exit featuring a gallery of art created by survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

Another part of the caves beneath Buda Castle. Image credit:Sahil Jatana via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The caves beneath Buda Castle have certainly had a bumpy history, and walking through them now is chilling (and not just because they keep the temperature at around 60°F). A tour through the narrow, oppressive hallways is a glimpse at our narrowly avoided nuclear future—definitely a sobering way to spend an afternoon.

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