When the word, “genius” is used in normal, every day conversation, it is often used to describe the accomplishments of someone noteworthy. You’ve got Albert Einstein and the theory of relativity, Thomas Edison and the invention of the light bulb, and George Crum, the inventor of the potato chip. Who would ever think of questioning their respective contributions to society?
For me, a genius is someone whose accomplishment stands out not necessarily because of how earth shattering their achievement is to society, but rather in the way that their achievement inconspicuously creeps into the fabric of every day life. For a good example of this, please refer back to Mr. Crum and his potato chip.
So who would personify my definition of a true genius? General Tso T’sung-t’ang, inventor (or inspiration) for General Tso’s chicken.
According to The Harper Encyclopedia of Military Biography, General Tso was born in Hunan, China and lived from 1812 to 1885. He joined Hunan’s military in 1853 and became a full-fledged general by 1860. During his military career, he was most well known for his leadership in driving out the Taiping rebels from Hunan despite being hopelessly outnumbered. He went on to become a governor of the Chekiang province, and later a secretary of state. He died in Foochow on September 5, 1885, and was considered by many to be a hero.
Did you notice in the above description that there was no mention of General Tso actually coming up with his chicken dish? In my research of General Tso, at no point did I see any mention of his culinary skills. I never heard any quote from him saying, “You know what? Before the Taiping rebels arrive, I’ve just got to tell you about this chicken dish I came up with the other day.”
In fact, in my research, I found General Tso’s name to be spelled in any number of ways, from Tzo, Cho, Chau, Tao, and several other variations. The correct pronunciation of his name ran the gamut as well, although most seemed to agree that it was pronounced, “Sow”, rhyming with “cow”.
Upon further investigation, it is quite possible that General Tso had nothing to do with this chicken dish, and that it was more likely invented in a Chinese restaurant in New York in the 1970’s. Furthermore, “General Tso’s Chicken” is not really even an authentic Chinese entrée, since it is not a dish you will ever find in China. Finally, in the few times I’ve tried it at different Chinese restaurants, it always comes out a different way – sometimes sweet, sometimes salty, and sometimes spicy. The only common denominator that I came up with was that the prime ingredient was thankfully, chicken.
So what you end up with is a faux Chinese dish that is listed on every Chinese menu in America, usually in the more expensive “Chef’s Specialties” section, misspelled and mispronounced a hundred different ways after a long dead Hunan general who had nothing to do whatsoever with the dish that was named after him, and tastes completely different every time you order it,
Call me crazy, but that’s genius.
My only quibble is that as far as I know, neither General Tso nor any of his descendents ever benefited financially from his ubiquitous recipe. I guess this was before the time of Mrs. Fields Cookies, Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn, or even General Tso’s modern day counterpart, Colonel Sander’s Kentucky Fried Chicken.
It makes you wonder if George Crum ever got any residuals from all those potato chips.
Between 1928-1936, General Chen Ji Tang was the supreme ruler of southern China. He was a leader in the ruling Nationalist party at the time, and was a rival to the party leader, Chiang Kai-Shek. General Chen wielded enormous economic and military power in the region, and was commonly known as the “King of the Southern Skies” due to his military might.
I bring up this somewhat arcane fact not because I’m particularly interested in this period of Chinese history, nor to relate this to some facet of China’s position in the world today. Instead, I sometimes reflect upon his life and times in a very personal way, as a contrast to my own life. You see, General Chen was my grandfather.
He lived and led during a tumultuous time in his country’s history, when decisions had life and death consequences. At times he led his military to fight the Japanese invasion of China, and at times he fought against the emerging Communist movement, which would ultimately lead to the retreat of the Nationalist party, pulling back to the island of Taiwan.
Growing up, whenever my father’s family would get together for a reunion, grandfather’s exploits on and off the battlefield were often the topic of discussion. While many of the stories were undoubtedly true, I suspect through the haze of time that his legend in the family has only grown.
I have heard stories on how he single handedly led the way to modernize Southern China’s infrastructure. I’ve heard that during the tumult of World War II, he received requests from the leaders of both sides of the war to recruit his support for their efforts. He is said to have traveled in a bullet proof car which he acquired after machine gun fire was sprayed all along his previous vehicle while he was in transit. I’ve been told that at a particularly dangerous period, grandfather would have his aides frisk his own children before allowing them to come into the house in case one of his enemies had successfully turned one of his own against him.
Yet even with the enormity of the times, it’s the few personal anecdotes my father tells that stand out most in my mind. By all accounts, my father was not the favorite of grandfather. Caught up in the drama of his times, along with having 15 + other children among his three consecutive wives, grandfather could be dismissive, distant, blunt, and bad tempered to his children, and particularly with my father.
My dad was a sickly child, constantly in and out of the hospital, and his condition in the eyes of his father was often in stark contrast to the vitality, ambition, and spirit of his closest older brother, who happened to be the favorite of the family. I’m sure this is one of the reasons why my father does not often speak of his childhood.
In the few times my dad has spoken of his past, his life was often at odds with a family of tremendous wealth and power. His living quarters were in a separate building from the main residence, where his parents and his favored siblings lived. His room was sparse, with a cold, concrete floor, furnished with a hard, uncomfortable chair and a bed with very little padding. He was often scolded for being sick, and because his illnesses affected his schooling, his grades suffered as well, which would only bring more scorn and ridicule from grandfather.
The piano was a refuge for my father, a way of escaping the starkness of his life, enabling him to revel in the beauty and peace of Mozart and Beethoven’s music. Unfortunately, grandfather often berated him mercilessly for playing the piano too loudly while he was trying to work or nap. He stopped playing shortly after that, and it was only a couple of years ago that he started playing again. I suspect that may be a reason why dad always pushed me to learn the piano.
With all this, it’s one brief encounter between my father and grandfather that is the most vivid to me. As I recall, my father, a slightly built eight or nine year old, was just berated by one of the servants of the residence. He sat, alone, on a wood bench, looking forlornly and glum at the floor.
Grandfather, entering the room, sees his son, sitting alone, and decides to sit alongside his dejected son.
Quietly, and very tenderly, Grandfather raised his son’s small and slender hand into the air, and placed his own open hand against the palm of his son. He looks down, into the eyes of his son, and says, “Everything will be alright. You see? Your hand is much smaller than mine but it is the same. You are a part of me.” This is my dad’s favorite childhood memory.
My grandfather passed away long before I arrived. I wonder how he would have fared in today’s world, where our greatest struggle of the day is often just getting through the daily commute without spilling hot coffee in the car. I wonder how I would have fared during the tumult of his times. I suppose these are questions that were never meant to be answered.
In the end, you live your life the best you can in the times you are in. The important thing is to honor your past, and to do your best to live up to it.
These two men – they are a part of me as well.