Eddie Huang talks with his mouth full. In his passionate, articulate, and totally full-of-himself memoir, Fresh Off the Boat, the outspoken chef and restaurateur graphs his evolution as a cook, finding a way to relate every life experience to food. Like the Tupac Shakur poem “The Rose that Grew from Concrete,” Huang has come through trials to success. "Fresh Off the Boat" is a deeply personal and unflinching look at both the thorns and blossoms of his life to date. Be forewarned, this book doesn’t hold anything back and contains strong language and graphic detail.
With a writing style influenced by Jonathan Swift, Lao Tzu, and Ghostface Killah, Huang uses hip-hop/rap vernacular – often perceived as ignorant, arrogant and shallow – to craft a passionate and articulate memoir. Boy’s got that ethos, logos, and pathos on lockdown. He has brought hip-hop culture from the rap scene to the kitchen.
As Huang tells it, he’s spent his whole life striving for authenticity – in himself and in his food. “My food was, is, and always will be ill.” He evolves as a cook, moving from work as a young expediter in his father’s restaurant on to food experiences in Pittsburgh and his parents' native Taiwan. He lands a gig as an amateur chef competing on the food network, and finally goes on to open his critically acclaimed “Baohaus” sandwich shop on the Lower East Side of New York. His life story weaves big themes of racism, assimilation, abuse, violence, drug use, materialism, basketball, and humor together.
As a boy, he found he related to the '90s hip-hop/rap scene through the pain in his own life. As a fiend for food, he also found solace in good cooking wherever it could be found. Orlando, Fla., the land where dreams go to sell out, was a tough place to grow up. He and his friends had lots of money, lots of time, and got into lots of trouble. Watching him grow up from a punk kid to somewhat-less-of-a-punk adult is sometimes painful to witness, but the journey is rewarding. "As a kid trying to maintain my identity in America.... I could taste something one time and make it myself at home. When everything else fell apart and I didn't know who I was, food brought me back."
TV chef Anthony Bourdain says, “He [Huang] is bigger than food,” and you had better believe it. Huang has two fingers on the pulse of US culture, and it has served him well in his quest for a socially relevant restaurant. The concept of his restaurant "Baohaus" has always been about community. For him, making good, ethical food is the right thing to do (as is "hotboxing" his own restaurant).
Huang recognizes that the American dream is not only for Americans. The USA was built on immigrant workers who more often than not get caught in stereotypes. His hostility towards the establishment and the hypocrisy of the “model minorities” is made strangely palatable by his smart/hard/Def Jam-but-substantial comedy style. Say one thing about Huang, say he knows how to dress a plate.
Sometimes I had trouble following the scene changes. He shows up in North Carolina and Pittsburgh with little notice. I also had trouble figuring out how old he was in a few spots. The few poor transitions were a long way away from making the book unreadable, though. Huang gets closer to that himself with his dirty mouth and over-the-top depictions of violence and drug use. You might not agree with his morals, but they are at least well-reasoned.
In the best tradition of food writers, Huang’s descriptions of his cooking will make you hungry, even if you’ve already eaten. But you have to understand that this book is not about food, it’s about him. It’s just that food is a part of his identity.
Abrasive and brash, yet weirdly endearing, Huang’s memoir is an authentic account of a young man’s struggle to find his individuality and identity in a culture that would force him to conform. If you want to understand hip-hop culture, the modern struggles of Asian American immigrants, what makes ethnic food “authentic,” and why the Orlando Magic can't win an NBA title, this is the book for you.
Ben Frederick is a Monitor contributor