Huang spent a lot of time getting into scrapes. “I was a loudmouthed, brash, broken Asian who had no respect for authority in any form,” he says. He sold drugs, picked fights and ran sports betting pools. He peddled pornography, in those innocent pre-Internet days, to other kids. His parents didn’t always mind. About the pornography business, Huang says about his mother, “She respected the hustle.”
Huang attended the University of Pittsburgh and Rollins College and got a degree from the Benjamin N Cardozo School of Law, mostly so that “no one could ever look down on me again.” But his heart wasn’t in legal work.
He designed street fashion and worked as a comedian before landing a small spot on the Food Network show Ultimate Recipe Showdown. He prepared something he called Chairman Mao’s Cherry Cola skirt steak (and he knocks David Chang for inauthenticity?) and served it on a bun. “I lost the competition,” he says, “but won the crowd.”
His parents were against him stepping into the food world. He had a law degree! But he’d always been a maniacal eater. Fresh Off the Boat contains a lot of salty food-minded writing, the best of it totally unprintable here.
As a kid he understood that “Chuck E Cheese was for mouth breathers and kids with Velcro shoes.” The Huang family van couldn’t turn without “looking like a club sandwich falling apart.” In high school he was a first-rate stoner chef, using a clothing iron on frozen chimichangas. He comes to realize that “the one place that America allows Chinese people to do their thing is in the kitchen.”
You’ll pick a lot of gristle from between your teeth while reading Fresh Off the Boat. Huang works too hard to establish his street cred. He’s full of himself in ways that work only in rap lyrics. (“My food was, is, and always will be ill.”) There are continuity mishaps; he turns up in college in Pittsburgh without a word about how he got there. He refers at one point to experiencing “mental diarrhea,” a phrase that some readers — older ones, especially — may feel could have been an alternate title for this whole production.
But Huang mostly puts this book across. It’s a rowdy and, in its way, vital counterpoint to the many dignified and more self-consciously literary memoirs we have about immigration and assimilation. It’s a book about fitting in by not fitting in at all.