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The Secret Jewish History Of General Tso’s Chicken

There are two hidden truths about China’s General Tso, whose ill-advised military incursion into Japan put the miso in misogyny and the saké into “for heaven’s sake.

The first is that he had a speech impediment. The second is that he was a coward. This latter character flaw was resented by the rank and file, who would regale him with cries of, “General Tso’s chicken.”

In response, the general ordered his cooks to prepare a dish that would be both cheap and popular.

After 23 experiments, the cooks settled on a honeyed, fried concoction with diced fowl. When they set up camp and soldiers began to shout abuse at the leaders, the response from the mess tent was to bring out, #24, General Tso’s chicken.

This would be an odd, if unremarkable episode in world history if it didn’t intersect with Jewish history in the person of the general himself. Born Abraham Tsorowitz to a Jewish trading family in Vladivostok, the communal shame at the Jewish roots of China’s cowardly general, is reflected in the Yiddish word that greets such problems, “tsores.”

The Tsorowitz family were one of the few groups of Russian Jewish emigres to go East rather than West. Some people say that they went to the east coast for the business opportunities but others dispute that motivation. Abraham’s father was famous among his Vilna family for once going out to buy a beet and ending up in Moscow.

The family name comes from the town of Hořovice, though family lore would rather it came from “Tsarowitz” through illegitimate descendants of a liaison between the Tsar and a beautiful Jewish courtesan. Photos of the general who was, like his namesake dish, sweet but bland, suggest however, that he counted no beautiful courtesans among his ancestors.

After military disgrace, Tso lived his life in exile in the Kuril Islands, named for Tso’s Greek uncle, Cyril Arkipelagos. The rest of the family scattered and suffered tragically. Three cousins were killed in the Holocaust, three were killed in the Israeli war of independence and, perhaps worst of all, three cousins ended up on Long Island.

Tso’s military career ended abruptly. In response to the American telegram inquiring as to his success, the Chinese responded in English with a telegram containing the world’s least interesting palindrome.

“Tso lost.”

Phil O’Lologous is the former language columnist for the Backward. Follow him on Twitgramspace @flolologoggle or waft him on the Snooplechip with the engram %$%Phil


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