Cooking off the first

Describing Eddie Huang’s memoir, Fresh Off the Boat (2013), with the adjectives “culinary” or “foodie” would be to needlessly limit the scope of a text that seeks to speak for a generation of young adults of color who grew up listening to gangsta rap, and for whom pumped up kicks and street wear represent the height of fashion. Placing too much importance on the fact that this book grew out of Mr. Huang’s eponymous blog would likewise be ill advised, especially since such a comparison would have the unfortunate, but inevitable, result of implying that this raw, and urgent memoir has anything in common with Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes,1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen (2005), the formulaic blog-to-book product that inspired the charming movie adaptation, Julie & Julia (2009), penned by Nora Ephron. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Huang is a proud heir of Anthony Bourdain’s brand of bad-boy-chef school of writing (which also includes the testosterone-fueled tone of most contributions to the food magazine Lucky Peach, published by David Chang, the Korean American chef and leader of the Momofuku restaurant empire, whom Huang sees as something of a nemesis). Whereas Chang and his literary ilk devote the majority of their waking hours to thoughts of food—how best to cook, eat, butcher, forage, prepare, and experiment with it–Eddie Huang is at pains to explain that his restaurant, Baohaus, is not the defining achievement of his life but, rather, represents one of his many driving passions. This becomes most obvious when, towards the end of the book, he declares in no uncertain terms that the topic that impels him to write is not his love of good food but, rather, something closer to home: race.

My entire life, the single most interesting thing to me is race in America. How can something so stupid as skin or eyes or stinky Chinese lunch has such an impact on a person’s identity, their mental state, and the possibility of their happiness.  It was race. It was race. It was race. (249)

This revelation appears in the closing chapter of the memoir, but it should come as no surprise to attentive readers, who will have noticed plenty of foreshadowing scattered throughout the preceding chapters. I read Huang’s choice to maintain the placement of this epiphany at the end of the memoir, where it fits in chronologically, rather than editing the entire manuscript so that it gains more cohesion as a treatise on the lived experiences of racialized subjects in America, as a reflection of his commitment to use a prose style that rings true to his peers. This quest for an authentic voice is yet another constant throughout the memoir. It belies Huang’s self-professed appreciation of canonical literary and philosophical texts such as Jonathan Swift’s satire, A Modest Proposal (1726) which, coincidentally, proposes cannibalism of children as a tongue-in-cheek solution to alleviating poverty in Ireland; his understanding of Hamlet and other Shakespearean drama; and his solidarity with W.E. B. Du Bois and Toni Morrison as fellow writers of color. Although Eddie Huang’s memoir aspires to an urban, rather than academic readership, he does give props to influential professors who took him to task for getting by on the substance, rather than the style, of his writing.  This book, therefore, reflects a conscious literary aesthetic that effectively conveys his anger, frustration, and, finally, the pride he finally takes on growing up as a Chinese American “rotten banana” in Orlando, and coming of age in New York.

More than anything, though, I contend that the kitchen still provides the most accurate vocabulary through which to understand the project that Mr. Huang is up to with the publication of his memoir. Despite his disclaimer, he often resorts to culinary or food imagery even when discussing race, as is the case when he describes arriving at a new school:

When I walked on to the school bus, I saw a bunch of preppy rich white kids, but there was also a Cuban girl; Neal, the big Jordanian; the Palestinians Maali and Muhrad; the Dominican Easy Eric; and me, “Chino.” From jump, I knew the diversity at Dr. Phillips would be good for me even if it came in the Sizzler Buffet one-of-each format. (92)

Thus, the title of this blog entry, which refers to the process of parboiling a piece of meat in order to remove any trace of what Mr. Huang calls alternatively its “funkiness” or its “stink”.  Huang first mentions this cooking technique when discussing his introduction to cooking at the hands of the Haitian cooks who worked at his father’s steakhouse restaurant in Orlando, Cattleman’s. He first acknowledges that he learned how to cook ribs from the (unnamed) Haitian cooks, then defines the cooking technique for his non-foodie readers in a footnote, citing it as proof of a shared set of assumptions or values across overlapping, but distinct, diasporas (Asian and African), before finally disavowing it altogether as “the wrong way” or “knowing there was something off, and then learning to do it the right way” (142).  Huang cites this particular insight as his first significant culinary epiphany.

He discusses the concept of preparing flesh for long cooking by getting rid of its gaminess again when trying to decide how best to prepare the skirt steak he wanted to braise à la Mao’s red cooked pork, a dish he then submitted for consideration to earn the chance to be featured Food Network’s Ultimate Recipe Showdown. In a paragraph that recalls Huang’s earlier description of the stark differences in his parents’ respective outlooks on life in general, Eddie contrasts each of their traditional approaches to making Mao’s red braise. Huang starts by describing his mother’s version:

My mom and her family were from the north so they’d do a braise that started by throwing out the first. The pork was always flash-boiled until gray, leaving behind bubbles of gray blood in the pot. (237)

Although more than once Huang acknowledges the immense debt he owes his mother for teaching him to cook at home, in this instance he actually chooses his father’s technique for red cooking, adapting it to skirt steak:

My dad’s side did Mao’s style red cooked pork since they were from Hunan. They would cook the first by searing the pork and preferred using pork belly over shank or shoulder. (237)

Long story short, Eddie comes up with his own twist to Mao’s favorite dish and, while not winning the “showdown,” he does find a career path as a restaurant owner that not only aligns him with his heritage—as the son of a restaurateur—but perhaps most importantly, it allows him to hire like-minded people who enjoy Taiwanese street food (baos) but do not necessarily want to work in the restaurant business forever.

The traumatic events preceding this professional epiphany— whether it was fighting over racial slurs, selling drugs, being thrown in jail, or hustling to keep his streetwear company afloat —constitute Eddie Huang’s own version of “cooking off” or “throwing out” his very own “first,” the anger and frustration he grew up with as an Asian American kid in the South.  While the events chronicled in Fresh Off the Boat may best be understood through this culinary metaphor, Eddie’s final realization that his personal calling is to start a national and frank conversation on contemporary race relations in an America that is most definitely not post-racial takes us all beyond the kitchen, and into the public arena of civics. Whether this gamble pays off by sparking a new national dialogue that goes beyond the use of empty slogans like “diversity” and gets to the heart of the matter in figuring out how to foster mutual understanding and appreciation of the cultural richness that people who are still “fresh off the boat” continue to impart upon us all, remains to be seen.

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