April 09, 2013

Food at its best uplifts the whole community, makes everyone rise to its standard.

Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir
By Eddie Huang

Lately, I've been instagramming covers of the books I read. No real reason, except that I'm reading so much now and I still prefer a book in my hand and an artistic cover. So that explains the picture above.

Absolutely loved this book. Gave it five stars on Goodreads because I enjoyed it so much. It was written in a language that while, not exactly mine, I could understand. He reminded me of some people I grew up around. (Not with -- our lifestyles were pretty different). I appreciated Eddie's honesty and the profundity of his revelations -- about his parents, peers, society, self. And his humor! I laughed a lot while reading this book. I saw him speak at a Skillshare event last year and thought he was cool, but have to say, definitely a Eddie Huang fan now. Going to try to make it out to Baohaus sometime this week; really craving some gua bao.  In the beginning, I jotted down lots of page numbers -- I wanted to blog everything. Then I stopped doing that because I just wanted to keep reading. Anyway, I don't guarantee everyone will like this memoir but I recommend it.

"I walked up to Jeff's room -- they called it a loft because it was upstairs and had a low ceiling; I couldn't believe my eyes. Everywhere you walked: toys, games, huge television, stuffed animals, it was like living in a Toys 'R' Us. I remember thinking to myself that if I died, I wanted to come back a white man. These fuckers had EVERYTHING. I didn't know what to play first, I was so confused. I literally rolled around in video games, read the instructions, looked at all the GamePro magazines, and then went to the bathroom and wiped my ass with their fancy toilet paper just to see how it felt. When you washed your hands, they had hand towels so you didn't have to wipe your face with the towel your brother wiped his balls with ten minutes ago. For real, if you are a broke-ass kid, you are wiping your face with your brother's balls. I felt like some wild gremlin child living in Chinese hell after going to their house.
By that point, I was ready to convert. I wanted to be white so fucking bad. But then dinner happened. All of us sat down. I had never eaten at a white person's house, but I just figured they ate pizza, hot dogs, or something like that. After a few minutes, Jeff's mom came out of the kitchen with two bowls. One bowl was filled with goopy orange stuff. For a second, I thought they might be little boiled intestines in an orange sauce, which I could get down with, but on closer inspection they were unlike any intestines I'd ever seen. The other bowl was gray and filled with a fibrous material mixed with bits of celery. I thought to myself, These white people like really mushy food.
She also gave us each two pieces of bread, the same plain Wonder Bread I saw at school. Jeff started wiping the gray stuff on the bread. I didn't want to come off like an idiot so I did the same thing. I put the other slice on top, lifted up, and went to take a bite, but holy shit, that smell. What the fuck was in this? Jeff and his brothers couldn't get enough but I was scared. I took a deep breath, clutched my orange juice, and forced myself to take a bite. Right on cue, gag reflex, boom went the orange juice. I couldn't hide it anymore. I had to ask.
"What is that, man?"
"You've never had tuna fish sandwiches?"
"No, never. Where do you get it?"
"At the grocery store, you want to see the can?"
"OK, but what's the orange stuff?"
"Macaroni and cheese."
"What's macaroni?"
"It's pasta."
I didn't know what pasta was, but was really starting to feel like a dumb-ass so I didn't ask. That shit was so nasty. We never ate cheese and it stunk like feet. A lot of Chinese people are lactose intolerant, so it's just not something we eat normally. We drink soy milk instead of cow's milk and stir-fry our noodles instead of covering them with cheese. I suddenly realized that converting to white wouldn't be easy, but still, that toilet paper was like silk. I tried to force myself to eat the macaroni and cheese but literally barfed it through my nose. Jeff and his brothers couldn't believe it. I realized no matter how many toys they had, I couldn't cross over. I'd much rather eat Chinese food and split the one good dinosaur with my brother. Macaroni is to Chinamen as water is to gremlins, teeth are to blow jobs, and Asian is to American. It just didn't fit."
(pp. 39-41)

"We walked up to the cart and I didn't say a word. I knew where we were. My dad had told me about this man for years. Every few months or so at home, Pops had to have Taiwanese 'Mian. Not the Dan-Dan Mian you get at Szechuan restaurants or in  Fuchsia Dunlop's book, but Taiwanese Dan-Dan. The trademark of ours is the use of clear pork bone stock, sesame paste, and crushed peanuts on top. You can add chili oil if you want, but I take it clean because when done right, you taste the essence of pork and the bitterness of sesame paste; the texture is somewhere between soup and ragout. Creamy, smooth, and still soupy. A little za cai (pickled radish) on top, chopped scallions, and you're done. I realized that day, it's the simple things in life. It's not about a twelve-course tasting of unfamiliar ingredients or mass-produced water-added rib-chicken genetically modified monstrosity of meat that makes me feel alive. It's getting a bowl of food that doesn't have an agenda. The ingredients are the ingredients because they work and nothing more. These noodles were transcendent not because he used the best produce or protein or because it was locally sourced, but because he worked his dish. You can't buy a championship.
Did this old man invent Dan-Dan Mian? No. But did he perfect it with techniques and standards never before seen? Absolutely. He took a dish people were making in homes, made it better than anyone else,  put it on front street, and established a standard. That's professional cooking. To take something that already speaks to us, do it at the highest level, and force everyone else to step up, too. Food at its best uplifts the whole community, makes everyone rise to its standard. That's what that Dan-Dan Mian did. If I had the honor of cooking my father's last meal, I wouldn't think twice. Dan-Dan Mian with a bullet, no question."
(pp. 51-2)

"Pops had only told me about the noodles and the old man, but I had no idea they were that close. It was as if they were each carrying something for the other. A secret, a burden, a past, but I knew better than to ask. Within minutes, two bowls of noodles appeared for us. Huge melamine bowls with khaki noodles, steaming soup, and a gremolata-like mixture of crushed peanuts, pickled radish, and chopped scallions. Of course, my pops put chili oil in it immediately, but I wanted to taste the broth: intense, deep, and mind-numbing. It was one of those bites that make you think maybe, just maybe, your taste buds carry a cognitive key that can open something in your mind. Like the first time I heard Lauryn Hill's voice scratch over "Killing Me Softly," I felt that I just had a mental breakthrough via sound; there has to be something like that with taste. It was then and there that I realized, you can tell a story without words, just soup."
(p. 52)

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