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Frankie Gaw explores Taiwanese American identity through recipes like Cinnamon Toast Crunch mochi

In "First Generation," Frankie Gaw marries foods of the Midwest with dishes from his Taiwanese grandmothers.
Frankie Gaw, author of "First Generation," and his Cinnamon Toast Crunch Butter Mochi.
Frankie Gaw, author of "First Generation," and his Cinnamon Toast Crunch Butter Mochi.Franklin Gaw

In his debut cookbook, “First Generation,” Frankie Gaw tells the story of his life as “Little Fat Boy Frankie.” The name of his blog is based on a nickname his family gave him for his love of eating as a child: “Xiao Pang,” meaning “little fatty” in Chinese.

“First Generation" by Frankie Gaw

By developing his own recipes and learning to cook his family’s food, Gaw has been able to explore his identity as a first-generation Taiwanese American gay man in a way he’s never been able.

“I wanted to create something I hadn’t really seen in cookbooks, which was to have an American cookbook celebrate an Asian American family,” he tells TODAY.com.

The cookbook reads like a personal memoir, documenting moments through a mix of family recipes and childhood favorites, from his upbringing as an only child to his parents, Chinto “Ben” and Jie-Pay “Peggy” Gaw, in Ohio, to his adult life working as a tech designer in San Francisco and Seattle. He pays homage to his family’s Taiwanese heritage in recipes like his grandmother’s Pearl Meatballs, while his Midwestern roots show up in recipes like Creamy Corn Soup and Cincinnati Chili with Flour Noodles. His roast chicken recipe documents his love of watching Ina Garten (whom he calls his “white grandmother”), but he makes it his own with chili crisp and honey. And his Black Vinegar Barbecue Beef Brisket Gua Bao comes from his late nai nai’s (paternal grandmother’s) Thanksgiving table in Memphis, Tennessee.

“For Thanksgivings in Memphis at my nai nai’s house, it was a full Taiwanese spread of soy sauce eggs and bamboo shoots marinated beef tendon with brisket and mac and cheese,” he says. “San Francisco brought more vegetable love into my life, and I actually grew up kind of hating vegetables! I love that all these locations kind of blur together, because I began just feeling like I was just Taiwanese or American in my life. But as I grew up, and started growing into myself, the blur kind of shows the American experience and the messiness it can also have.”

Gaw’s baked treats — like Cinnamon Toast Crunch Butter Mochi — set his style of cooking apart from both his parents’ and grandparents’, as they just never really baked. “They mostly used their ovens for storage!” he explains.

But he did learn plenty from watching his grandmothers, who he says showed their love through their own unique cooking styles. Gaw would record videos of them on his phone in their kitchens whenever he’d visit.

“I definitely lucked out in the grandma department.” Gaw says, “They brought different cooking into my life. My nai nai really knew flavor, everything felt like restaurant-quality and bold. I loved her steamed buns the most, and she taught me how to cook by feel. She made homestyle dishes that were iconic: scallion pancakes and dumplings, so delicious! My po po (maternal grandmother), she’s much more spunky and has my mom’s personality. She’s almost like a kid, and everything excites her. I would eat her food after school in Ohio. My po po has balanced, light flavor, almost delicate in her cooking. Her pork bone broth, ribs or simple fried rice or noodles … She just does everything very simply. I learned a lot about ‘editing’ my food from her.”

In terms of his photography style (yes, he shot the photos for his own book!), he was inspired by the vintage Chinese cookbooks he grew up looking at, especially the old cookbooks of Taiwanese chef, Fu Pei-mei. He felt like it was time his culture’s food was given the visual respect that it deserves, the way he’d seen Western food so visually glorified in cookbooks.

“I wanted to shoot my own photography, and it was both a time and storytelling challenge,” he explains. “I wanted to push myself, so I started experimenting with visuals and things started changing a bit, and taking shape with the writing, too. It needed to be a quick bite of storytelling and I don’t consider myself much of a writer, but I wanted to be vulnerable.”

And indeed this book is about vulnerability. There are some sequences where he shares more playful, personal delights, such as a dream sequence with Antoni Porowski from “Queer Eye” or a two-page spread of his favorite Asian snacks, but mostly he’s telling profoundly personal stories through his recipes.

A story that stands out is one he tells alongside his scallion pancake recipe, where he describes his father having kneaded and fried them the night before Gaw was going to leave on a camping trip with friends, knowing it was his son’s favorite. Gaw says he then threw them into the garbage, describing it as a moment where he was unable to let people into or find joy in the Taiwanese part of his identity. It was a part of himself he would downplay in order to fit into a mostly white crowd at the time, a feeling many first generation Americans can relate to. “It was something I just wasn’t ready to share yet,” he says.

Gaw came out to his mother shortly after his father passed away from lung cancer in 2014. After expressing her support, she told him that his father had known but was waiting for him to be ready to share it with him.

So he continued to find his voice through food. It was what kept him motivated and, it turns out, also what kept him bound to the rest of his family.

“I feel like cooking and food really was the core of who I was in the end,” says Gaw. “Food has always been the center for my family in having and cooking together. If I was having some personal trauma or life got complicated, I just went back to cooking and it brought me back to comfort and sentiment to my life.”

But this book isn’t just about Gaw finally telling the stories he’s kept inside for so long — it’s also about motivating others to find their own voice.

“I feel like I never fit into any sort of box, and never felt worthy to tell my story about my Asian identity. To put private, personal stuff out there for people to see was something I was hoping it could encourage a few people who also want to tell their stories.”