General Tso and the Big Mac


If you’re doing things right, you gained as much weight as possible in November so that you have a good base to build on for December’s feasts. I am pleased to provide leadership by example on this note. Well, maybe “pleased” isn’t the right term, but there’s no doubt that I’m well-qualified.

But today we’ll drop our napkins for a while as we consider two culinary luminaries who recently passed away, both at the age of 98. These are the Michael “Jim” Delligatti, inventor of the Big Mac; and Peng Chang-kuei, inventor of General Tso’s Chicken.

The Big Mac is so famous that it needs no introduction on Saipan or anywhere else. But the very ubiquity that makes it unremarkable is, of course, remarkable. The Big Mac hasn’t always existed. Somebody had to invent it.

And that somebody was Delligatti. He invented the Big Mac in 1967, unveiling it at a franchise he owned in Uniontown, Penn. The following year it went nationwide on the McDonald’s menu.

By the 1970s all my pals and I could name the Big Mac’s ingredients. They were enumerated in an advertising jingle: “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun.”

I’ve since had many a time in strange, far-away lands when a Big Mac was my only touchstone of Americana, so I’ve always had a real appreciation for this product. I don’t eat many of them these days, but I like knowing that they’re there when the need arises.

The Big Mac is such a homogenous and common product that it has significance in economic analysis. As I point out from time to time, the Big Mac serves as a measure of purchasing power between various national currencies. This is called the Big Mac Index. It was invented by The Economist magazine in 1986. One reason I like the index is that it’s a lighthearted approach (that characterization is from The Economist magazine itself), so you’re free to take it as seriously, or as not seriously, as you care to. There is real juice to the concept though, so it’s not just a lark.

We now aim the gimlet eye of gastronomy at Taiwan, where, according to the Taiwan News website, restaurateur Peng Chang-kuei concocted an ad-hoc dish to serve to an American admiral in 1952. Peng dubbed the dish “General Tao’s Chicken,” so named for a famous Chinese general from back in the day. Another restaurateur eventually introduced the dish in New York. Its popularity spread throughout the U.S. from there.

In summary, then, it was not a traditional Chinese dish, but was something concocted for contemporary American palates. So it’s more Peoria than it is Peking.

You’ve got to admire the winding way of the world’s trade routes. The American hinterlands are serving “General Tso’s Chicken” in strip malls; meanwhile, Colonel Sanders has claimed a lot of Asian market share as he hawks “KFC” fried chicken. I haven’t received any dispatches from Cap’n Crunch, but he must be somewhere out there.

One thing about Saipan that can spoil you is the variety of little restaurants that have some genuine character. Come to think of it, I guess I could say that about most places I’ve been to in the west Pacific. Were you to be dropped into the broad expanse of mid-America, though, you might not feel so spoiled; outside of the usual chain restaurants, there isn’t much action in some places. I once spent a few weeks on a business trip where the best food in the area was the sandwiches at the local truck stop. To this day I have no idea where those sandwiches came from. They just appeared at random intervals on a dingy shelf between the sinus spray and batteries.

Well, if that bleak scene doesn’t make you appreciate what’s on your plate this holiday season, I guess nothing will. So let’s grab our forks and get on with things, shall we?

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at His column runs every Friday.
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