Last updated on April 28th, 2015
Today’s contributor, Christina Loccke, is a restaurant guide editor, freelance food writer, and WSET student who’s trying teach her kindergartener to smell the differences between warm- and cool-climate Chardonnay. She’s also got a gift for picking the best things on the Chinese takeout menu, including Kung Pao chicken.
In Hollywood, predictability is the stuff of Oscars, and it’s no secret that movies follow the same recipe of beats and devices. I imagine this was all cooked up at some dinner hosted by our Founding Moguls. It’s an easy scene to write:
Late night, an exhausted group of executives gather around a bare-wood table strewn with empty boxes of takeout. Sleeves rolled up, wringing hands, unshaved faces, lots of pacing back and forth.
DeMille: (picks up a pair of chopsticks and tosses aside empty containers) Any more Kung Pao chicken?
Warner: (staring off into space, refocuses, food falls from his chopsticks) That’s it!
Everyone in the scene starts talking simultaneously and the future of cinema is foretold, thanks be to the Kung Pao chicken. It’s like plot-rich brain food for movies. And when Hollywood faces her greatest decisions, she calls her leaders to the Chicken Kung Powwow, where problem-solving and plot-thickening while scarfing directly from white containers with disposable chopsticks is more American than apple pie.
Kung Pao chicken made its scripted debut in the 1945 Katharine Hepburn vehicle Purity Squad. Sure, it had its small-screen cameo on Columbo, but Seinfeld pushed it into the spotlight when an entire episode centered on its excessive heat: Kung Pao chicken makes George sweat profusely while being questioned about a string of NY Yankee shoe thefts. Remember?
Maybe that is what inspired the 1992 renaissance of Kung Pao chicken, when A Few Good Men may as well have earned it a Hollywood star. An hour into the film, Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, and that other guy are still fretting over motive. There they are, hunched over carton upon carton of yet another night of takeout, mired in the intricacies of military protocol when… “Pass me the Kung Pao chicken.”
Pow! There it is. “Find out everything there is to know about lactic acidosis!” (And cue the dropped chopsticks.) There was no longer any concern about finding a motive. An order was given, and that was all that mattered to Downey! By the end of the movie, audiences knew they could “handle the truth” from Jack Nicholson. And they all were suddenly craving Chinese.
That seminal moment opened the floodgates to what is now subconsciously recognized as the Kung Powwow. Sure, there were casual mentions of the dish in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story or Shanghai Knights with Owen Wilson, but then it started creeping into unexpected places, from bittersweet Sally Field comedies (Two Weeks) to the crime thriller Confidence, when the coldblooded killer “didn’t even put down the Kung Pao chicken.”
So Kung Pao slowly became a major player, cementing its presence in The Contender, when President Jeff Bridges sits down with VP hopeful Joan Allen. The air is thick with unpleasant business—rumors of sexual escapades and photographic proof. How does Mr. President begin? By ordering “Kung Pao chicken, but with walnuts” over the intercom. At that moment, the scene drops a beat. The entire discussion is beneath them. Madam VP isn’t going to defend herself, and Mr. President isn’t even going to ask for an explanation. For the next hour, the audience hangs on that decision.
So what exactly is this wünderfood? Basically, it’s a wok-fried mix of chili peppers, chicken, peanuts, and those lingering, menthol-fierce Sichuan peppercorns—bringing the kind of heat that has you gulping air after each bite.
While toned-down versions of Kung Pao chicken are popular in America, the dish originated in Sichuan. Named for a late Qing dynasty official, it literally translates as “palatial guardian.” In fact, the name itself is so traditional that it was actually blacklisted, McCarthy-style, in China. During the Cultural Revolution, Kung Pao was plucked from the market and politically rehabilitated—think Clockwork Orange. It ultimately re-emerged as the Chairman-friendly “fast fried chicken cubes.” Same recipe, different name.
Should we be questioning Kung Pao’s politics? What’s behind its exponential growth in American media? Could this be the culinary Manchurian Candidate?
Maybe we should be worried.
Or maybe this all merits further examination. Anyone up for some Kung Pao chicken?