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Fresh memoir on finding own path

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Fresh Off the Boat

A Memoir

By Eddie Huang

Spiegel & Grau, 276 pages, $31

Popular New York food blogger and chef Eddie Huang has lived a lot in his 30 years. The eldest son of Chinese immigrants, he's worked hard to find his own path and create his own success.

In his new memoir, Fresh Off the Boat, Huang lays his life story out on the line in a take-it-or-leave it look at what it means to be a minority in America trying to build his own future.

Huang began his life with his extended family in northern Virginia, where the family settled after emigrating from Taiwan. After his grandfather died, Huang's parents moved to Orlando, Fla., to open a restaurant.

Huang was placed in a private school, but as the only Chinese student, he faced bullying and racism. After he was punished for fighting back one day, his mother stepped in and pushed back at the school's administration.

"From that day forward, I promised that I would be the trouble in my life," he writes. "I wouldn't wait for people to pick on me or back me into a corner. Whether it was race, height, weight, or my personality that people didn't like, it was now their ... problem."

Huang writes like he must talk, occasionally punctuating a point with exclamations or a few profanities. It's not always easy to follow, but he still manages to make his stream-of-consciousness style flow in a relatively organized way.

Unlike many food bloggers, Huang isn't just regurgitating his blog posts in book form; rather, the book is made up of mostly new content.

Smart, witty and adept at pacing his stories, he shares the stories of life with his family and friends with a real flair for storytelling.

He also describes his parents' unhappy marriage and the physical and mental abuse he lived with; while he doesn't absolve his parents of blame or shrink from reality, he doesn't invite pity, either.

He turned to hip hop, basketball and football for escape, and it's here that his voice slips into a heavy hip-hop slang as he tells a few too many high school stories.

He started taking too many drugs and partying too hard, but a summer university course and an assault charge forced him to take a closer look at his life and where he wanted to go. After a rough start at university, Huang got his undergraduate degree and went on to law school.

While there, he started a streetwear company selling T-shirts before changing direction again and trying standup comedy.

A taping for a Food Network show led him to opening his own restaurant in New York, where he specializes in Taiwanese gua bao (sandwiches). Today, he's also branched out into hosting television shows, including working with notoriously-tough chef Anthony Bourdain.

It takes him almost half the book to start talking about cooking, but it's when he talks about food that his words really come alive. You can feel his excitement as he describes the perfect bowl of Dan-Dan Mian noodles, or his disgust as he remembers eating packaged macaroni and cheese for the first time.

Huang describes "pancakes crispy on the outside like dollar bills but fluffy on the inside" and a coleslaw that was "slick, snappy, vinegary, and just peppery enough." He waxes poetic about beef noodle soup, revels in discussions on techniques and new flavour combinations, and his enthusiasm makes one want to head to the kitchen and make something new for dinner.

Huang's rough-around-the-edges personality is in stark contrast to his considered perspective on life. Fresh Off the Boat is just that -- a fresh memoir about making it on your own terms.

Julie Kentner is a Winnipeg writer.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 26, 2013 J8

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