Book review: Fresh of the Boat: A Memoir

By Dwight Garner  /  NY Times News Service

Tue, Jan 29, 2013 - Page 12

Eddie Huang’s first book, a memoir, is titled Fresh Off the Boat, and the word to emphasize is “fresh.” Huang has a mouth on him.

He’s the proprietor of Baohaus, a raffish Taiwanese street-food joint in New York’s East Village. (Try the pork-belly buns, known as guabao.) He also hosts a show on Vice TV — it too is called Fresh Off the Boat — in which he does things like roll with biker gangs, wriggle in Taiwan’s metal scene and ingest a vast amount of offal. He’s Anthony Bourdain with a side of pickled radish.

Like the rappers he admires — Ghostface Killah, Dr Dre, Mobb Deep — Huang likes to trash talk. His memoir is calculated to make ripples in the busy food blogosphere.

He takes aim at Alice Waters, by now a vine-ripened target. “I ain’t never ate her food,” he admits. But he skewers her good-shopping-is-good-eating ethos. “You can’t,” Huang says, “buy a championship.”

He calls the brusque service in his restaurant “Anti-Danny Meyer.” He dislikes Harold McGee’s cerebral quality and Ferran Adria’s preciosity. He pokes Momofuku’s David Chang, hipster America’s most venerated chef, labeling him a bastardizer of gua bao. Comparing his pork buns to Chang’s, he boasts, “Nine out of 10 Asians with taste buds and an IQ over 80 like us better.”

This bluster — Huang puts the crude back in crudites — is not the reason to come to his book. Beneath it, Fresh Off the Boat is a surprisingly sophisticated memoir about race and assimilation in America. It’s an angry book, as much James Baldwin and Jay-Z as Amy Tan. That it’s also bawdy and frequently hilarious nearly, if not entirely, seals the deal.

Huang, who was born in 1982, grew up in Orlando, Florida, America’s least interesting city, where wit and soulfulness run afoul of zoning laws. There his Taiwanese father — who came to America because it was “the land of opportunity, free love and the Bee Gees,” the author says — ran a string of increasingly successful seafood and steak restaurants.

Eddie Huang was a rebel almost from the crib. He had little interest in being a stereotypical model minority; when he faced racial epithets at school, he fought back. “There was this switch that would go off,” he writes. “I wanted to hurt people like they hurt me.”

He got pretty good at hurting people. “I beat that kid,” he writes about a white guy who menaced him for racial reasons, as if he were “Reaganomics, the Counting Crows, and ‘Moby-Dick’ all rolled into one.”

Black culture, he felt, held more lessons for him than did Asian culture. He became obsessed with basketball, especially Charles Barkley, and with basketball sneakers. Good shoes were “like having cars on your feet,” he says. “Shoes were literally your hopes and dreams in a box.”

He plowed through black literature and sports biographies. About race and the fact that his father occasionally beat him, at times with a five-pound rubber alligator purchased at Busch Gardens, he says, “There wasn’t a section in the library titled ‘Books for Abused Kids,’ but there was black history and somehow, some way, it made sense to me.”

Perhaps most important, he found Tupac Shakur’s music. “Pac made sense to us,” Huang writes about himself and an Asian-American friend. “We lived in a world that treated us like deviants and we were outcast.” He adds: “Pac was the one guy we all pointed to and said, ‘Tell me this isn’t someone we should respect. Tell me this isn’t positive. Tell me he’s not an artist.”’

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.