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Sunday, February 25, 2024
Feb. 25, 2024

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This Seattleite’s debut cookbook explores what Taiwanese American food looks like


Growing up, Frankie Gaw’s Taiwanese American Thanksgiving family meal at his grandmother’s house in Memphis, Tennessee, consisted of a mishmash of steamed buns, scallion pancakes and soy-marinated tofu sharing space with macaroni and cheese, green bean casserole and racks of ribs from Corky’s, the neighborhood barbecue joint. He loved it.

Inspired by those Taiwanese American Thanksgiving smorgasbords at Grandma’s, there’s a dish in Gaw’s cookbook, “First Generation: Recipes from my Taiwanese-American Home,” for black vinegar barbecue beef brisket bao. The brisket is dry-rubbed in brown sugar, garlic powder, orange zest, cinnamon, cumin, salt and pepper, and roasted in a low-temp oven for hours the next day. The barbecue sauce combines ketchup and mustard with soy sauce, brown sugar, Taiwanese black vinegar, butter, ginger, garlic and onion, sauteed and blended smooth. Once the brisket is done, it’s sliced and served in fluffy steamed buns, topped with the barbecue sauce, marinated pickles, chopped peanuts and scallions.

To Gaw, 31, a Seattle-based former tech designer-turned-Instagram sensation-turned-cookbook author, that dish represents both Grandma’s Thanksgiving table and his unique cooking style: “A weird mix that doesn’t go together and that feeling of being in-between … like it’s OK to feel like you can’t attribute yourself to one culture or another,” Gaw says. “I feel like culture and family is messy and that’s OK.”

“First Generation” is a cookbook, but it’s also an unconventional memoir — a journey Gaw takes the reader on as he uses food to discover not only who he is, but how he feels about that discovery. As much as the design — filled with gorgeous photos shot by Gaw in his Queen Anne attic — and the recipes themselves, in almost every essay, the book evokes one of the very best feelings of all: laughter through tears.

Of course, the road to self-discovery wasn’t a straightforward path, especially for a gay, first-generation Taiwanese American man.

From Cincinnati to San Francisco

When Gaw’s father Chinto — who also went by “Ben” — died in 2014 after nearly four years with lung cancer, Gaw was living in San Francisco, having moved there after graduating from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He had already started cooking — an activity initially spurred by an article he’d read about how “a lot of first-generation kids, all their family history is going to die because they don’t care,” Gaw says.

Gaw comes from a small family — he’s an only child and only has four cousins — but also, he wasn’t steeped in his family recipes growing up. His parents emigrated from their native Taiwan to Plano, Texas, for college in 1985. That’s where Gaw was born.

The family soon moved to Cincinnati, a land — according to Gaw — that’s known for strip malls, hot dogs and cheap beer. Oh, and Cincinnati chili, which Gaw loves.

“Served over spaghetti or a hot dog, and it’s topped with an insane amount of cheese. It’s orange, almost glowing. That kind of cheese. It’s so good,” he says.

His childhood was the epitome of his parents’ American dream. A neat suburb, an Olive Garden down the road — and, like so many Chinese families, an oven used for storage.

“We never baked a single thing,” he says, laughing.

Instead, Gaw’s mom Jie-Pay (who also went by “Peggy”) made “her attempt at American food,” he says. Overdressed salads with too many carrots and not enough lettuce. Spaghetti Bolognese topped with soy-glazed salmon. And lots of takeout — McDonald’s was a definite favorite. Panera was the first place Gaw ever remembers having real baked bread.

“I never had truly Taiwanese food unless I was with my grandparents,” he says.

He also never had any Asian friends growing up and was one of only two Asian kids at a school with about 1,000 students. So he downplayed his Asian side in an attempt to fit in. If anyone brought attention to his “Asian-ness” he’d make it into a joke.

“I have no regret not having Asian friends. I have good friends,” Gaw said. “I think it just delayed a lot of feelings and exploration of identity and what it meant to me and just how I approached it.”

Growing up in Ohio surrounded by whiteness, eating at Olive Garden and watching his parents refine their English over episodes of “Wheel of Fortune,” Gaw never really felt Taiwanese, either. His parents were on their own journeys of assimilation, trying their hardest to fit in, something that unintentionally also caused Gaw to delay his feelings about his Taiwanese heritage.

Moving to Pittsburgh for college in 2009 helped — he was suddenly surrounded by people of all cultures. And like many kids when they find themselves out of their hometown, Gaw finally had some breathing room to figure out who he was.

That breathing room got even more expansive when Gaw moved to San Francisco where, amid grappling with his cultural identity, he began to consider his sexual identity, too.

He approached his sexual identity like a researcher proving a thesis: He set up three dates with three girls, searching for data.

“But after all the dates it was very clear this was not going to work,” Gaw says.

Amid that sexual exploration, while Gaw was well on his way to finally coming out as gay, his dad died.

“I don’t have that many regrets but one of the biggest regrets I have is not coming out to my dad before he passed,” he says.

After Gaw’s father died, he realized that he still had a link to his dad in the form of his paternal grandmother, whom he calls “nai nai,” who lived in Memphis and cooked all those Thanksgiving feasts. He also still had his mother and his maternal grandmother — whom he calls “po po,” who at the time lived in Colorado with one of his aunts.

Styling Grandma’s food

Gaw began flying to see both his grandmothers more frequently — recording videos of them with his phone while they cooked. The time spent with his grandmothers was valuable not only for the emotional connection while grieving but for the cultural connection to his Taiwanese heritage. At home, he’d re-watch the videos and re-create the dishes. The urge to tell stories about the food emerged.

“At that point I was used to seeing very Eurocentric foods photographed and styled so nicely, and thought it would be so cool to make Grandma’s food look so good. It was a challenge to myself,” Gaw says.

A year after his dad died, Gaw came out to his mom as gay. She said she and his dad had known he was gay since he was 5 years old, and she was a part of an LGBTQ+ group through work for years.

“She knew I was going to come out at some point, and she was just waiting,” he says.

Gaw was finally able to let go of some of his regret over never telling his dad.

In 2015, while still working for various startups in the Bay Area, Gaw was also slowly finding his footing in his food identity. In some of his first food photos posted on Instagram, Gaw is roasting chickens and making corn soup with a few Asian ingredients trickling into them, referring to himself as the “Asian Rachael Ray” or “Asian Ina Garten” and admitting that he felt like he was “making food for other people.” Additionally, he was mastering his family’s traditional Taiwanese recipes, but those didn’t quite feel fully like him either.

Then, in June 2018, Gaw posted an image of his recipe for Cinnamon Toast Crunch butter mochi, with a caption that described how the dish satiated childhood cravings for Asian desserts and his Midwestern nostalgia for what he considers the “best cereal ever created.” (A refined version of the recipe made it into “First Generation.”) It also tagged dessert queen and Milk Bar owner Christina Tosi as inspiration. Tosi commented on the picture “WHOA! This sounds AMAZING!”

“It was right around the time I was just starting to find my voice. I was experimenting with melding flavors and cultures around this time and that mochi was one of the first times I felt like I got it right,” Gaw says.

He kept leaning into this meshing of foods and cooking techniques from Taiwanese and American cultures; kneading scallion pancakes, mastering dumpling folds and playing around with all the flavors of his life. There were sweet potato and onion steamed buns (a nod to his boyfriend, who’s in love with sweet potatoes), Olive Garden-ish pasta tossed with dashi broth, two-tone dumplings dyed with vegetable juice that utilized his family’s technique and his highly personalized point of view. Ohio meets Taiwan.

People on Instagram started asking for recipes to go with the beautifully composed food photos he was posting, so Gaw launched a blog, calling it “Little Fat Boy” after the nickname his family gave him as a boy: “Xiao Pang.”

“In Chinese, [it] means “little fatty,” Gaw says. “My family loved to call me that because I loved to eat and had a little baby fat. It was a term of endearment.”

In 2019, Little Fat Boy was named Blog of the Year by Saveur magazine and cookbook offers started to trickle in. Writing a cookbook had been a dream of Gaw’s since he started cooking back in 2015.

“I remember just loving to cook but feeling like I never saw myself represented [in] or saw a book that talked about the immigrant story from the kid’s perspective, almost. I feel like as a first-generation kid I’ve always wanted to write that kind of cookbook,” he says.

Gaw moved to Seattle in 2019, signed with an agent in 2020 and spent 2021 writing his book. His paternal grandmother, nai nai, died while he was writing.

Each chapter of the book opens with an essay. The first is a recap of a poignant conversation with nai nai before she died. In this essay, Gaw is sitting with nai nai in her kitchen in Memphis, snacking on soy-marinated peanuts and rice crackers. Nai nai, who uses a wheelchair at this point in her life and has dementia, keeps asking Gaw if he is his father. After explaining multiple times who he is and where his father is — to spare her the shock of learning that her son is dead, Gaw tells nai nai his father is on a fictional business trip — nai nai has a moment of lucidity. The essay ends with them screaming “I love you” to each other and laughing. It is impossible to read it and not instantly fall in love with Gaw, eager to see what else he has to tell you.

Gaw says writing “First Generation” was a challenge he gave himself. The essays are letters, stories, even a fever dream. They are raw and personal — friends who read early drafts would tell Gaw when he wasn’t being honest enough — and the finished version is equal parts heartbreaking and funny.

Gaw is excited for the book’s release and is gearing up for his book tour, complete with an appearance on “Good Morning America.” He says he’s already gotten much feedback from people thanking him via email and DMs to say they’ve gone through something similar, and that they, too, were waiting for someone who looked like them to be represented in a cookbook like this.

While Gaw’s design background and natural eye for how to style and capture a beautiful photo of food would have eventually found him a certain following, the book would not have happened without his very personal brand of food. And while he misses his father, Gaw says that strangely enough, none of this would’ve been possible without his dad’s death.

Gaw was in college when his father was sick with lung cancer, and as he was trying to figure out who he was as an adult, there was also the question of who he was in his family, and what his role would be after his father died.

“I feel like it’s weird to say, but I don’t regret that stuff happening because I do feel like you need those messy moments in life to get your [stuff] together and figure stuff out and grow up a little bit. I feel much prouder of the person I am now than before he passed away,” Gaw says.