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Who Was General Tso?

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 History Behind Why We Eat 10 Dishes at Thanksgiving
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Halloween is for candy comas, and on Independence Day we grill, but no holiday is as completely defined by its cuisine as Thanksgiving. No matter what part of the country you're in, it's a safe bet that at least a few of the below dishes will be making an appearance on your table this week. But what makes these specific entrees and side dishes so emblematic of Thanksgiving? Read on to discover the sometimes-surprising history behind your favorite fall comfort foods.

1. TURKEY

A roasted turkey on a platter.
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Turkey has become so synonymous with Thanksgiving that most of us probably imagine the pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans chowing down on a roast bird in 1621. Although we don't know the exact menu of that first Plymouth Colony feast, a first-person account of the year's harvest from governor William Bradford does reference "a great store of wild turkeys," and another first-person account, from colonist Edward Winslow, confirms that the settlers "killed as much fowl as…served the company almost a week." However, culinary historian Kathleen Wall believes that, although turkeys were available, it's likely that duck, goose, or even passenger pigeons were the more prominent poultry options at the first Thanksgiving. Given their proximity to the Atlantic, local seafood like oysters and lobsters were likely on the menu as well.

As the holiday grew in popularity, however, turkey became the main course for reasons more practical than symbolic. English settlers were accustomed to eating fowl on holidays, but for early Americans, chickens were more valued for their eggs than their meat, and rooster was tough and unappetizing. Meanwhile, turkeys were easy to keep, big enough to feed a whole family, and cheaper than ducks or geese. Even before Thanksgiving was recognized as a national holiday, Alexander Hamilton himself remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." The country followed his advice: according to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey in some form on Thanksgiving Day—an estimated 44 million birds!

2. STUFFING

Pan of breaded stuffing.
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Stuffing would have been a familiar concept to those early settlers as well, although their version was likely quite different from what we're used to. We know that the first Plymouth colonists didn't have access to white flour or butter, so traditional bread stuffing wouldn't have been possible yet. Instead, according to Wall, they may have used chestnuts, herbs, and chunks of onion to flavor the birds, all of which were already part of the local fare. Centuries later, we're still stuffing turkeys as a way to keep the bird moist through the roasting process and add extra flavor.

3. CRANBERRIES

Dish of cranberry sauce.
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Like turkeys, cranberries were widely available in the area, but cranberry sauce almost certainly did not make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. Why not? The sugar reserves the colonists would have had were almost completely depleted after their long sea journey, and thus they didn't have the means to sweeten the terrifically tart berries.

So how did cranberries become such an autumnal staple? For starters, they're a truly American food, as one of only a few fruits—along with Concord grapes, blueberries, and pawpaws—that originated in North America. They grow in such abundance in the northeast that colonists quickly began incorporating cranberries into various dishes, such as pemmican, which mixed mashed cranberries with lard and dried venison. By the Civil War, they were such a holiday staple that General Ulysses S. Grant famously demanded his soldiers be provided cranberries for their Thanksgiving Day meal.

4. MASHED POTATOES

Bowl of mashed potatoes.
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Potatoes weren't yet available in 17th-century Plymouth, so how did mashed potatoes become another Thanksgiving superstar? The answer lies in the history of the holiday itself. In America’s earliest years, it was common for the sitting President to declare a "national day of thanks," but these were sporadic and irregular. In 1817, New York became the first state to officially adopt the holiday, and others soon followed suit, but Thanksgiving wasn't a national day of celebration until Abraham Lincoln declared it so in 1863.

Why did Lincoln—hands full with an ongoing war—take up the cause? Largely due to a 36-year campaign from Sarah Josepha Hale, a prolific novelist, poet, and editor, who saw in Thanksgiving a moral benefit for families and communities. In addition to her frequent appeals to officials and presidents, Hale wrote compellingly about the holiday in her 1827 novel Northwood, as well as in the womens' magazine she edited, Godey's Lady's Book. Her writing included recipes and descriptions of idealized Thanksgiving meals, which often featured—you guessed it—mashed potatoes.

5. GRAVY

Plate of turkey and potatoes covered in gravy.
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Despite a dearth of potatoes, it's likely that some type of gravy accompanied the turkey or venison at the earliest Thanksgiving gatherings. The concept of cooking meat in sauce dates back hundreds of years, and the word "gravy" itself can be found in a cookbook from 1390. Because that first celebration extended over three days, historian Wall speculates: "I have no doubt whatsoever that birds that are roasted one day, the remains of them are all thrown in a pot and boiled up to make broth the next day." That broth would then be thickened with grains to created a gravy to liven day-old meat. And, if Wall's correct, that broth sounds suspiciously like the beginning of another great Thanksgiving tradition: leftovers!

6. CORN

Plate of corn.
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Corn is a natural symbol of harvest season—even if you're not serving it as a side dish, you might have a few colorful ears as a table centerpiece. We know that corn was a staple of the Native American diet and would have been nearly as plentiful in the 17th century as today. But according to the History Channel, their version would have been prepared quite differently: corn was either made into a cornmeal bread or mashed and boiled into a thick porridge-like consistency, and perhaps sweetened with molasses. Today, we eat corn in part to remember those Wampanoag hosts, who famously taught the newcomers how to cultivate crops in the unfamiliar American soil.

7. SWEET POTATOES

Bowl of mashed sweet potatoes.
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In the midst of so many New England traditions, the sweet potatoes on your table represent a dash of African-American culture. The tasty taters originally became popular in the south—while pumpkins grew well in the north, sweet potatoes (and the pies they could make) became a standard in southern homes and with enslaved plantation workers, who used them as a substitution for the yams they'd loved in their homeland. Sweet potato pie was also lovingly described in Hale's various Thanksgiving epistles, solidifying the regional favorite as a holiday go-to. More recently, some families further sweeten the dish by adding toasted marshmallows, a love-it-or-hate-it suggestion that dates to a 1917 recipe booklet published by the Cracker Jack company.

8. GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE

Plate of green bean casserole.
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Beans have been cultivated since ancient times, but green bean casserole is a decidedly modern contribution to the classic Thanksgiving canon. The recipe you love was whipped up in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, a home economist working in the Campbell's Soup Company test kitchens in Camden, New Jersey. Reilly's job was to create limited-ingredient recipes that housewives could quickly replicate (using Campbell's products, of course). Her original recipe (still available at Campbells.com), contains just six ingredients: Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, green beans, milk, soy sauce, pepper, and French's French Fried Onions. Her recipe was featured in a 1955 Associated Press feature about Thanksgiving, and the association has proven surprisingly durable—Campbell’s now estimates that 30 percent of their Cream of Mushroom soup is bought specifically for use in a green bean casserole.

9. PUMPKIN PIE

Slice of pumpkin pie.
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Like cranberries, pumpkin pie does have ties to the original Thanksgiving, albeit in a much different format. The colonists certainly knew how to make pie pastry, but couldn't have replicated it without wheat flour, and might have been a bit perplexed by pumpkins, which were bigger than the gourds they knew in Europe. According to Eating in America: A History, however, Native Americans were already using the orange treats as a dessert meal: "Both squash and pumpkin were baked, usually by being placed whole in the ashes or embers of a dying fire and they were moistened afterwards with some form of animal fat, or maple syrup, or honey." It's likely that Hale was inspired by those stories when pumpkin pie appeared in her culinary descriptions.

10. WINE

Two glasses of wine.
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Chances are good that a few glasses of wine will be clinked around your table this November, but did the pilgrims share a tipsy toast with their new friends? Kathleen Wall thinks that water was probably the beverage of choice, considering that the small amount of wine the settlers had brought with them was likely long gone. Beer was a possibility, but since barley hadn't been cultivated yet, the pilgrims had to make do with a concoction that included pumpkins and parsnips. Considering the availability of apples in what would become Massachusetts, however, other historians think it's possible that hard apple cider was on hand for the revelers to enjoy. Whether or not the original feast was a boozy affair, cider rapidly became the drink of choice for English settlers in the area, along with applejack, apple brandy, and other fruit-based spirits. New England cider thus indirectly led to a less-beloved Thanksgiving tradition: your drunk uncle's annual political rant. Bottoms up!

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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