Questioning America’s culinary intelligence almost always risks a food fight.
Detractors line up with anthropologist Sidney Mintz, who claims the United States has no national cuisine to boast. While this statement stirs only mild controversy, it points to the difficulty of historically tracing an American culinary tradition to any root other than immigrant cultures. Even our simplest “American” comfort foods first appeared on plates in mother countries. Macaroni and cheese? Look to Italy and France for savory origins. Hot dogs? Link these to the sausages of Europe.
The land of the free, however, has quite a few delicacies born and bred on our shores. They seem better close to home. Speaking from firsthand experience, collard greens simply do not taste the same in Colorado. Eating pierogies outside Chicagoland usually means a bland experience.
Fusion? To some food purists, it’s as dirty a word as they come. I tend to ally myself with that camp, though I recognize that blending foods and culinary practices sometimes lets a new taste or a new idea shine through.
Take the Kogi truck in Los Angeles, for example. The very popular food truck whips out Korean BBQ in the form of tacos, burritos and featured quesadillas. Kogi combines two foodways exemplified by current Angeleno culture … a delicious and logical fusion.
Then we find instances of more subtle fusion.
Eddie Huang’s Baohaus in New York City represents the culmination of a lifetime of engagement with food cultures, Western and Eastern. Anthony Bourdain, the super chef, says of Huang, “He’s bigger than food.” Thanks to his popular VICE show “Fresh Off The Boat” and now a new memoir with the same name, I wholeheartedly agree.
Huang’s influences and interests range widely: Wu-Tang Clan, Audre Lord and eye-catching streetwear, among many. A son of Taiwanese immigrants, Huang identifies deliberately with the tastes and sensibilities that simmer in the stockpot of hip-hop culture.
Born and for a while raised in the Washington, D.C. area (or the DMV—for D.C./Maryland/Virginia, as he puts it), Huang spent most of his adolescent years in the Disneyfied Southern suburbia otherwise known as Orlando. While always drawn to food, law school led Huang toward, he felt, a career devoid of passion. He quickly found his calling in the kitchen.
Baohaus claimed New York magazine’s “Best Bun” laurel in 2010 and Huang’s standing-room-only space also earned a New York Times notable $25-and-under designation. Huang’s baos—steamed buns filled with traditional or unexpected fare—don’t intrinsically represent fusion … but by naming one of these pockets of joy the “Jeremy Lin Bao,” cultural collisions seem hard to ignore. What’s more, Huang carves out a new culinary spot for himself while simultaneously being aggressively true to his Taiwanese culture.
Fresh Off The Boat explains to readers how some foods … and some people … need to be lost in translation for a while to find what they really have to say to us.
For Eddie Huang, food fusion begins with culture fusion. He travels to Taiwan, the Bay Area and Los Angeles, among other taste capitals, to interact with cultures the average American may never have seen or known. Huang cares as much about the story behind the meal as the cooking process. The book gives you much of the on-screen personality—Huang comes across as alluring, attractive and, at times, just the right amount of abrasive. Above all, he seems honest.
Some memoirs drudge methodically through the past, highlighting accolade moments. Huang—and maybe this offers a key to his melding skills—celebrates borderline mundane occurrences with the ferocity and the excitableness of his 10-year-old Orlando self reading new comic books. Has he ever experienced a dull moment? Even dismal memories fill him with ideas.
Tracing his own still very young life (Huang is only 30) from first grade through troublemaker middle school and on to his discovery of cooking … and writing … as outlets, Huang never falls short of words.
Fresh Off The Boat guarantees a laugh and a slight shake of the head every few pages. When Huang discusses his mother’s formidable cooking prowess, he says, “My cousins love talking about things they don’t know about and everyone claims their parents are the best, but even the aunts admit my mom goes hard in the paint.” Clearly, a refreshing writing style, unafraid to fuse mother, kitchen and basketball court, signals Huang’s refusal to take himself too seriously.
The fusion starts with the memoir’s epigraphs. Huang gives us a Cam’ron quote: “Can’t get paid in a earth this big? You worthless kid.” He serves up a second from Jadakiss: “Yeah yeah, I design these things and you know I’m in the hood like Chinese wings.” Last, we get some wise words from Dad: “Don’t be afraid, fight for it.” If the reader needs a quick appetizer for Huang as a person, this mash-up of word choices conveys a fairly accurate glimpse.
I find just one possible pitfall to Huang’s original, bracing book. His story can be periodically disjointed.
His writing thrills … but the reader moves with the intensity of a first-semester collegian hyped up on betel nut for finals. The style mostly succeeds, but beware—you may sometimes find your eye scanning too fast, requiring a half page or so at a time of re-reading. I couldn’t decide whether to blame it on my own overexcited enthusiasm for Huang’s stories or a bit of first book over-animation.
Fresh Off The Boat will appeal to those with a hunger for a true American Dream story … and who seek insight into the mind and mastery of a fine chef. Even if you for some reason despise Asian food, Huang’s narratives on the preparation of broth and the proper construction of a soup dumpling can convert.
The author recounts the trials and tribulations of a passionate young stranger moving in and out of separate worlds. He tries to find his place … and a name for his place when he finds it. Unique and relatable, Huang’s book will be a must-read for anyone who loves food, hip-hop, learning about the world … and how they all fit together.
How they—you know—fuse.
Sarah Barnett is a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago with a BA in Cultural Studies and a concentration in food and culture relations. Born and raised in Atlanta, she currently calls Chicago home.