8:00am PT by Hanh Nguyen
How Food Nourishes 'Fresh Off the Boat's' Exploration of Identity and Expression
Fresh Off the Boat may have deviated from restaurateur and food personality Eddie Huang's provocative memoir of the same name, but the two still share one thing in common: an insatiable appetite for food.
On the 1990s-set ABC comedy, the Huang family's preoccupation with food extends beyond patriarch Louis' (Randall Park) restaurant, Cattleman's Ranch. Food is identity, food is self-expression, food is language. On a show that addresses cultural assimilation, food is one of the most tangible ways to showcase the balancing act faced by immigrants every day.
"On our show, there's just so much wrapped up in food as being part of your culture," creator and executive producer Nahnatchka Khan tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It's so inherent to the way you live and your family: It's the thing that brings you all together, it's the thing that makes you different also when you put yourself into the context of the white suburbs and what other people eat and what your family eats."
For the adults in the Huang family, food is a way to hold onto their Chinese heritage, especially when it comes to teaching their sons. In "The Year of the Rat," the first episode on TV to feature Chinese New Year, the Huangs miss their flight to D.C. and are forced to celebrate the holiday in Orlando, Fla., where it's a struggle to find any authentic Chinese cuisine at that time. After failing to pass off jelly doughnuts as pork buns ("Same basic concept though: Dough filled with something delicious"), Louis finally hires his restaurant's chef to custom-make the requisite dumplings, fish and other traditional dishes.
"Sheng Wang, the writer of the episode is Taiwanese and celebrates Chinese New Year every year, but all of us researched in the [writers'] room, too," Khan says. "It's not just random; everything has a purpose and has history behind it. There's a reason why these specific foods are served at this time."
Louis' wife, Jessica (Constance Wu), is the most vigilant about her kids' diets and proudly interprets her youngest son's lactose intolerance as rejecting white culture. Of course the problem is that the Huangs aren't only Chinese; they're Chinese American, which means that embracing culture isn't so one-sided, something Jessica learns when she unsuccessfully tries to force her kids to eat chicken's feet. For eldest son Eddie (Hudson Yang), pop culture and his peers also influence his desire to eat so-called white people food, such as Lunchables and pizza. His mixed palate has already bridged the two cultures.
Beyond just the exploration of heritage, however, food on Fresh Off the Boat functions as a vehicle for self-expression. In one episode, Eddie's classmate Philip (guest star Albert Tsai) gives Cattleman's Ranch a B- ating on his food blog, not because of the mediocre cuisine but because of his high expectations for an entertaining dining experience. "Food is very important to him, so much so that he feels that other people really want to hear his thoughts on good food in the area and what he likes and what he doesn't like," Khan says. Even when he's asked to change the rating, he refuses to compromise his integrity.
In another recent episode, Eddie and his two younger brothers, Emery and Evan (Forrest Wheeler, Ian Chen), discuss which one of them should be eaten first if they were stranded on a desert island. A clip from Duck Tales may have inspired the ridiculous topic, but it soon reveals how the brothers view themselves and their family. Khan says, "As the story progresses, they just keep coming back with a different idea of who they would eat first and why Eddie feels he should not be eaten, why Evan is upset when his dad doesn't want to eat him because he's young like veal. We were just making ourselves laugh with this sort of in-depth argument for and against the eating of the brothers."
On a less creepy level, giving good eats is emblematic of good intentions on the show. It's clear just how sorry Eddie is when he gives his friend a Choco Taco ice cream bar as a peace offering. When Jessica takes three hours to cook birthday noodles for Eddie, it is her love in edible form. On Tuesday's episode, chili enters the show's vocabulary of valuable victuals. "It's the big chili cook-off, and Louis prides himself on his chili every year," Khan explains. "The next door neighbor Marvin [Ray Wise] is also in the contest. There's a competition between them, and Louis finally allows Eddie to be his chili apprentice. It's this sort of father-son bonding, but really the underpinnings of it are food-related, how the dad is trying to pass on his knowledge to the son, who maybe thinks he's better than the dad."
With most cultures, eating with family and friends offers psychological nourishment in the form of interaction and reaffirming bonds, which is why most major holidays revolve around food. Similarly, many meals on Fresh Off the Boat lead to significant revelations, such as when Eddie throws his own private birthday meal without inviting his family or when Jessica realizes how loyal Louis' Cattleman's Ranch employees — who are in essence an extension of the Huang family now — are in spite of getting shorted on their tips.
In an upcoming episode that Khan herself is directing, Louis celebrates Emery graduating as class valedictorian with a dinner at Cattleman's Ranch, where everyone can invite one friend each. Naturally, Eddie decides this is the best time to invite his girlfriend, Alison (Isabella Alexander), which is news to his mom. "It's the first time that Jessica meets Eddie's girlfriend," Khan says. "We have this joke where Eddie becomes really nervous because [Jessica] has always wanted him to date a Chinese girl."
Louis' own brother Gene (guest star Ken Jeong) gets in on the action when he comes to town with big news in the season finale. Apparently, this news is far more important than befits a dinner at Cattleman's Ranch though. In fact, it's mullet-worthy. Khan says, "He's like, 'No, no, no. I made a reservation at the best restaurant in Orlando, and it's called Orlando's and it's an Orlando-themed restaurant in Orlando.' They have all the famous Orlando merchandise in there and they also have a piece of Mel Gibson's mullet because they shot Lethal Weapon 3 there. They're like, 'Can we get a booth next to the mullet?' "
Fresh Off the Boat is by no means the first show to be obsessed with eating. NBC's since-canceled Hannibal elevated it to gastronomic artistry; Seinfeld used food to highlight absurd human foibles; and Transparent's vitality would be dimmed without its characters' outrageous appetites. On Fresh Off the Boat, however, it is also significant in how casually ubiquitous food is. Grandma Huang (Lucille Soong) may only be addressing her family at home, but she will do it while peeling and eating an orange. It's a scene that would convey the same information without the fruit, but is so much more authentic for its inclusion.
That truthfulness is why the show continues to return to the food trough over and over. Khan admits that writing food scenes is not a deliberate mandate on the show, but is instead natural for the writers because of how much they themselves value eating. "It's never a conscious thing. For us it's such a big part of everybody's life," she says. "One of the first emails every day that gets sent out from our writers' PAs is the lunch menu. So that's the first decision you make, pretty much, every single day is where you're eating, what you're having."
Fresh Off the Boat airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on ABC.