Double Cup Love: On the Trail of Family, Food and Broken Hearts in China
By Eddie Huang
Spiegel & Grau
218 pages, $27
By Kathleen Rizzo Young
What would you get if you combined MTV, the Food Network, ESPN and the Travel Channel? You’d get Eddie Huang – the Chinese-American hip-hop and basketball-loving chef, restaurateur and author, purveyor of gonzo cuisine, a virtual Hunter Thompson on MSG.
Ironically, two other networks currently feature Huang. His “Huang’s World” travelogue appears on the Vice channel and his first book, “Fresh Off the Boat” describing his family’s early days in Florida has been turned into a sitcom. Huang has not been pleased with “Boat,” tweeting that he finds his family’s story “unrecognizable” and “so far from the truth” that he no longer watches it.
Huang’s path has been unusual to say the least. He quit practicing law to open Baohaus– a Taiwan/Chinese sandwich shop – in New York City in 2009 (“a single vision: representing our family, our culture and our experience through a restaurant selling $4 sandwiches.”). From there his larger-than-life personality catapulted him into the celebrity realm, and made him a cult hero.
In “Double Cup Love,” Huang heads to China to get in touch with his roots, to see if his food can cut it with the locals and to propose to his Irish-Italian-American girlfriend. He struggles with her not being Chinese, and also with all of the demands on his time – writing another book, running a successful restaurant, making personal appearances and drama with his travel companions, brothers Evan and Emery. Evan, who works for/with Eddie and lives with him, is a wonderful foil for Eddie. Their relationship is a highlight of the book.
While his first book was a memoir, “Double Cup Love” reads more like a travel diary/self-help journal. Huang attempts to get in touch with his sensitive, spiritual side while balancing his unexpected celebrity in China. (Although he wanted to make the trip undercover, he soon discovers “Fresh Off the Boat” is being broadcast in China even though he never granted any foreign rights.)
Writing about food is challenging, and foodies will revel in Huang’s mouth-watering accounts of the dishes he samples on his visit to China. His descriptions of food often weave in his other passions – basketball or music, in order to paint a picture of tastes:
“Like Shaq’s drop-step spin to a baby hook, Old Jesse’s pork had only one countermove: vinegar. Our Hunan red-cooked pork was like the Nigerian Nightmare, Hakeem Olajuwon. It lured you in with pork fat, faked you out with sugar, bounced you with garlic, elbowed you with peppercorns, and just when you thought it was safe, laid it over your head with a touch of anise.”
Huang is unflinchingly honest, taking himself to task for mistreating his brother or being caught up in the fact that so much of their family’s life now revolves around him.
“When I cared about someone, I’d start to pick at all the flaws, highlight potential problems, and assume that everything would inevitably unravel. Deep down I just didn’t think I deserved anything nice.
Things were different with sports, though. With sports I believed.”
He is also torn about committing to a non-Chinese woman when his culture is such a big part of his life and his business. Dena, the object of Eddie’s affection, does not come across as a well-developed character. Instead, one of the most heartfelt exchanges in “Double Cup Love” comes as Eddie gets a massage in Chengdu. He finds himself in a deep discussion with massage girl Xiao Zhen where she gently gives him a wake-up call about his good fortune:
“We are both Chinese, but so much in-between, so much changed because you were born in America. I have lots of things I want to do. I have dreams too, but I will never get to see them happen because I am born here with the parents I have.”
Huang is a brilliant guy, and his interests are as broad as his palate, equally comfortable discussing Szechuan peppercorns, Kanye West or Jane Jacobs’ “Death and Life of Great American Cities.”
This is an honest and very funny book, but following “Double Cup Love” can be a bit exhausting as Huang’s stream of consciousness is more like the Yangtze. A product of his generation, he speaks and writes in the language of the streets. While his footnotes explaining the Chinese terms are helpful, those of us over 30 probably could use another set of footnotes to decipher the hipster slang.
Perhaps the answer is to hear his own voice – to fasten your seatbelt and try the audiobook for the real Eddie Huang experience.
Kathleen Rizzo Young is a veteran contributing critic to The Buffalo News.