After I Got Divorced, I Leaned on General Tso's Tofu

On ending my marriage, the transition into my "divorce apartment," and the comforting takeout dish I ate twice a week to cope.

December  4, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland. Food stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop stylist: Amanda Widis.

For so many of us, food is in some way tied to our most important memories. It's there to accompany all the celebrations, and comfort us through harder times. It can be shared as a gift between loved ones, or as the ultimate healing remedy. In short: Food is one of the most important ways we navigate the world and relate to one another.

The new collection, Eat, Joy: Stories & Comfort Food from 31 Celebrated Writers, is filled with stories on how food impacts our lives, and the accompanying recipes that have made the biggest. In this excerpt from the book—an essay by novelist Lev Grossman—we learn about the comforting takeout classic that helped Lev through his divorce, and how he recreated it at home to help comfort himself.

When you get divorced, if you don’t get the house or the apartment, what you get is a divorce apartment. Generally speaking it’s a relatively small and crap apartment, reflecting your newly remade financial situation. In fact your divorce apartment will probably resemble the kind of apartment you lived in during your twenties, except that it now contains a you who is no longer in your twenties.

You may or may not deserve all this.

An architect-designed, restaurant-style kitchen was not a feature of my divorce apartment. In my old life I liked to cook most of my meals, but after I got divorced I ordered takeout most nights. On two out of three of those nights what I ordered was General Tso’s tofu.

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“I haven't tried the recipe yet, but I will. But first I want to tell you that I absolutely love your story. It was so honest and true and lovely. Thank you!”
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Why General Tso’s tofu? Partly because it was there: They had it at the veggie storefront Chinese joint a few doors down, which for some reason had a life-size plaster Egyptian sarcophagus outside it, and which was staffed by young, unsmiling Chinese women who didn’t say two words to me.

Partly because it had tofu in it, so I could tell myself it was basically healthy. (It wasn’t. It’s possible, with strenuous effort and painful compromises, to make a low-calorie, low-sodium General Tso’s tofu, but this wasn’t that.)

But mostly I ordered it because I loved it and it made me feel good. It was easy to get depressed in the divorce apartment. I was alone. I missed my daughter. I was mourning a complicated eleven-year series of major personal mistakes. I was newly poor and my apartment sucked. And General Tso’s tofu, when made properly, is stunningly delicious.

Mostly I ordered it because I loved it and it made me feel good.

There isn’t much that’s authentically Chinese about General Tso’s tofu. There was a real General Tso, who had a very successful career suppressing a lot of internal revolts in China and died in 1885. (According to Wikipedia, he had a long and happy marriage. Good for him.) But he never tasted the tofu that bears his name. General Tso’s chicken was invented in New York in the 1970s and the tofu version came sometime after that. It doesn’t exist in China.

But this inauthenticity withers into irrelevance in the face of General Tso’s greatness as a dish.

The essence of General Tso’s Anything is the sauce: sweet, sour, spicy, salty, unabashedly gluey, studded with nuclear red chilies. Its color is a radiant translucent orange that reminds one of rubies and molten iron. The hot tofu, lightly coated in a form-fitting cornstarch batter, cracks open to reveal a silky slippery interior not unlike a savory toasted marshmallow.

Interleave it with some hastily blanched broccoli to add texture and vegetal credibility and you have a perfect one-dish meal. To me in my divorce apartment General Tso’s tofu was like an edible antidepressant. I could eat any amount of it, hunched over a trestle table, watching nihilistic British sitcoms on YouTube, using Wi-Fi borrowed from my neighbors.

The divorce apartment is not a permanent thing. Eventually your finances will stabilize and you’ll realize you could probably afford something slightly better, or you’ll move in with somebody who can. I can’t remember the last time I ate General Tso’s tofu in my divorce apartment, but the night before I moved out I was on my way to dinner with my then-girlfriend, now-second-and-final-wife, when I passed the Chinese restaurant with the Egyptian sarcophagus in front. Someone hailed me: It was one of the women who worked behind the counter.

“Hey!” She was smiling. “Aren’t you coming? We make it for you already! General Tso!”

I was so surprised that she was speaking to me that I temporarily forgot how to speak myself. I just smiled and waved and made some gesture along the lines of: What can you do, these things happen, I couldn’t stay depressed and divorced forever, eventually I had to eat some non-comfort food. But I’m really grateful for all the comfort food you made me.

I hope she understood my gestures, as I never got a chance to say those words out loud.

Excerpted from "General Tso" by Lev Grossman, from Eat Joy: Stories & Comfort Food from 31 Celebrated Writers, an anthology edited by Natalie Eve Garrett. Used with permission of Black Balloon Publishing. Copyright © 2019 by Natalie Eve Garrett.

What comfort-food dish got you through a hard time? Let us know in the comments.

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Lev Grossman

Written by: Lev Grossman


RobinT December 9, 2019
I haven't tried the recipe yet, but I will. But first I want to tell you that I absolutely love your story. It was so honest and true and lovely. Thank you!
mmcdaniel December 7, 2019
Do people still use cooking sherry?