Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir
Let’s start by stating, yes, we are in love with Eddie Huang – the food media world that is. There is something about the “Human Panda” that we collectively can’t seem to get enough of at the moment. In fact many are touting the baby-faced Taiwanese-American as the next Anthony Bourdain. And we all know how big he got. Huang first came to the public’s attention as a controversial contestant on the cook-off show Ultimate Recipe Showdown, followed by many appearances on various Cooking Channel shows, which led to him to opening his very popular take-out stand BaoHaus in Lower Manhattan. Now he is the host of the controversial travel program also called Fresh Off the Boat on Vice. Most recently he gained more mainstream recognition after he had his TED Talk fellowship revoked; he retaliated by calling the popular conference a cult. But I still balked a little when I heard that at the tender age of 30 he was writing a memoir – not a foodie book or a collection of his Grandma’s favourite dumpling and noodle recipes, but a big deal memoir. Yet despite my reservations I really enjoyed this coming of age tale he has written, cheekily entitled Fresh off the Boat. Below are 3 reasons why you should pick it up as well.
a) I read a lot of these types of books and most of the time you know they are ghost written or at least heavily “edited”, and the author’s voice is lost in the final print version. This is definitely not the case here. We get to enjoy every last Wu-Tang or 2Pac reference (his love of hip hop equals his love of food) and also all the basketball metaphors he can lob at us. I know his vernacular may not be for everyone, but Eddie is amongst the first to put to paper this new voice of the millennial generation urban male. I like to think how puzzling his text must be to those over 40 who will still be trying to decode it long after they attend Anthony Bourdain’s next book tour. This book is a badly needed generational divide in the sand. And it is very funny, in many ways.
b) He’s smart. He is one of the few chefs I have ever heard of who graduated from law school. Seriously, I have worked in a few kitchens in my time and most are fortunate to have graduated from high school. At the same time, he has made many mistakes and the honesty with which he recounts his criminal past will give you much respect for how he turned his life around. Fresh off the Boat describes well how the alienation that many second generation Asian kids feel may lead them to gangs, dealing drugs, and other criminal behaviour. Or in the opposite direction the way they become over-achievers and bury themselves in their school books in order to ignore their feelings of otherness. There is a lot of heavy stuff in this book about cultural identity and the trappings of the stereotypes we all face. I respect the fact that he knew most people were going to pick us his book thinking it would be about his journey to becoming a chef, but instead he delivers for us a bigger story, the journey about how he became a man.
c) I remember like it was yesterday the day I ate one of the most complete bites of my life: the soup dumpling. Since then my obsession with them has only grown and similarly Eddie shares my need to gobble as many of these as possible, yet in his case he has also been to the “dumpling temple”. Din Tai Fung in Taipei, Taiwan, is the spot that makes the best in the world and Eddie’s description of how they make their tiny culinary delights almost made me sell everything I own in the middle of night in order to catch the very next flight there. Another encounter with a noodle stall vendor at a Taiwanese night street market shows the real human connection he has with his motherland’s food and how he found inspiration to start his own restaurant. This is his soul food. And you can see why he is so quick to defend it from all the “Uncle Chan’s” who appropriate Asian flavours and create more palatable Asian fusion food. His passion is contagious and despite its many efforts to not be a foodie memoir, there is enough here to satisfy.
Like one of his favourite dishes – stinky tofu – Eddie Huang may not be for everyone. But what has drawn him to the forefront of this new generation of chefs is his distinct voice. Unlike so many around him, he has discovered it, nurtured it, developed it and now he is not afraid to use it whether as a social commentator, a comedian, street wear designer, TV host, or through his food as a chef. And the greatest compliment I can give Fresh off the Boat, is that he has done an incredibly entertaining job at portraying how he has discovered it and now that he has, how he is going to take over the world. Watch out Mr. Bourdain, there is a new kid on the block and his name is Eddie Huang. But I am sure you already knew that.
John McFarland was once a leading music tastemaker and DJ, but gave it up for cooking and the pursuit of the perfect meal. His current obsessions are Afrobeats, Sixties Soul, Street Food & Southern Cooking. A former Georgia Straight contributor, he now resides in Toronto where he is our East-Coast Editor.