Off the Books: Double Cup Love: On The Trail of Family, Food, and Broken Hearts in China by Eddie Huang

Off the Books returns with a look at the latest book from celebrity chef Eddie Huang.
By    June 2, 2016

double cup love

Dweez may or may not have visited Emei Shan and Jellyfish the same time as the Based FOB.

“Living in a civilization with the latest software updates, we forget that human nature is the same in America; it’s just autocorrected and cleansed of Chingrish. Watching the homeless man yank the monkey chain, I saw the dark shadow humanity casts over all life.”

—Eddie Huang, page 188*

The line goes “Double cup love / you the one I lean on,” uttered in early 2009 by a young Canadian-American rapper in Toronto. Later that same year, a young Taiwanese-American attorney decided to open a restaurant selling bao sandwiches. Fast forward seven years and advertisements for the rapper’s newest album grace benches and city busses while copies of the chef’s second book are clutched tightly to college student’s chests.

It’s arguable that the rapper—whom the chef, after quoting him in his new book released this week, says he’d never quote but also does so in, you know, the title—was ever able to access humanity in his work. Distance is the great downside of stardom and wealth. Meanwhile, the chef, recently catapulted to the stratosphere, wants desperately to avoid the same fate, evidenced in the book’s subheading: “On The Trail of Family, Food, and Broken Hearts in China.”

The self-proclaimed Rich Homie Huang says he went to China to look at his other life in the face. To imagine who he would have been had his parent’s never immigrated to the U.S., swooped down to Florida, capitalized on the tourism boom, and built a Scarface-grade crib in Orlando where he spent his high school years. Add in college, law school, his own restaurant, a book about it all, a sitcom about the book about it all, another show, and you’ve got a soul, like other celebrity-whatevers, very much at risk of falling out of touch with basic humanity.

What Works

Like freestyle cyphers and his first book, Huang’s Double Cup Love paragraphs are packed with punch lines. He takes meta-swipes at other New York-based memoirist chefs who take their own trip to their ancestral homelands (Marcus Samuelsson); compares American Midwesterner lovers to The Cheesecake Factory; and inserts a Pusha-T adlib (ECK) directly in the text. The prologue rests Charlie Parker beside Kevin Spacey to set up a weed-edible anxiety attack. Even in this seeming incongruity (he also conjures Cassidy’s “Hotel” and Immortal Technique on the same page) the big picture effect is less the ‘mixtape of cultural appropriation,’ he’s been accused of rocking and more a memoir crafted for a readership without cultural borders or patience.

These all deliver on the Huang many readers came to see. You will, as expected, laugh. Yet, this public Huang we know from his VICE show and elsewhere—basketball/rap references aplenty, street wear savvy, celebrity chef—is more like the top Yelp reviewed dishes at a restaurant: accurate but overhyped. It’s the introspective Huang, the one willing to take a step out of pop culture and into himself, where he’s at his richest.

Aside from the personal progress made on his romantic and identity quests, Huang manages to capture a fairer, more textured portrait of modern China than the foreign bureaus of every major Western news outlet. In his first book, Fresh Off The Boat, Huang gave a similar, if lighter, treatment to Taiwan but this time it’s Shanghai and Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in the heart of mainland China. Instead of ignoramus platitudes about Chengdu being a city that “prides itself on laziness,” Huang hangs, cooks, and chops it up with locals offering insights on regional cuisine, China’s ethnic minorities, working conditions, social strata, and the country’s levitation onto the world stage.

This introspection, delved out between his own schooling on the archaic staples of Sichuan cuisine (dandan noodles and mapo tofu) makes for a read equal parts what we want and what we need. It’s as worth the effort as the trek to the San Gabriel Valley for quality Sichuan at Chengdu Taste, Sichuan Impression, or my personal favorite, Spicy City.

What Doesn’t

Huang has grown since his first book. During a crawl through the back alleys of Chengdu (as endangered by modernity as its Pandas), he catches his 22-year-old-self by the collar mid-paragraph from wishing the vanishing world of mediocre, family-run steamed bun stands on the future of a country building mall empires faster than L.A. can extend the metro to the beach.

This restraint fails him later when a Caucasian lunch guest screams for a waiter’s service only to exhibit how quickly it arrives. Having spent two years living in Chengdu’s rival city Chongqing, I can assure you that this seemingly insensitive foreign behavior is learned: getting a waiter’s attention in China is often a genuine shouting match. Certainly the culprit, a guy Huang calls Cramer, sounds like a douche but the author’s ensuing commentary (featuring Latrell Sprewell strangling and the extermination of foreigners, i.e. cockroaches) reads like something better off in the blog world where Huang began, where only the thirstiest trolls will track it down.

The backward step is not unlike a moment in the latest episode of Huang’s World where he visits The Sausage Castle in Orlando and becomes enraged when proprietor/maniac Mike Busey crosses a line. Huang too has to be careful with the way he uses people, not just treating them as one-dimensional objects for his arguments (he was using the Cramer incident to make a connection with the Opium Wars) but also taking the advice he learned from his double cup lover in this book and aiming his writing towards what is worthwhile.

But Should You Read It?

If you’re into food in a sense that goes beyond giving into every Yelptation (the guy dedicates half a page waxing on the distinguished spiciness of wei ji rou, a cadaver-cold chicken dish that’s as squeaky as chewing gum) or keen on seeing a well-weighted observation on modern China (both the business siesta and the various bathroom scenes are a master class) this book is a must read. Huang is equal parts Jonathan Gold, Peter Hessler, Marc Maron, Jeff Chang, and Prodigy. Even if you’re not a fan of his preferred Jayceon Taylor-levels of references and name drops, it’s undeniably illuminating to join him on this journey.

Indeed, there is also much ado about family, love, and identity in Double Cup Love, but in a world where we look for the celebrity in everything, it’s safe to say Huang has shaken himself free of the nomenclature by pursuing the very opposite: humanity.

It’s not an accident that the book’s most endearing moment comes when Huang—now the literal face of an entire conglomerate—is face-down talking to a masseuse about her daily life. Their conversation and his contemplation is the emotional high-point of the book. He finds himself bewildered by the exchange and struggles to categorize it before a realization: she’s a person.

Much can be gleaned from this interaction as a guide to approach the book itself. Double Cup Love—and the brand Eddie Huang itself—is marketed as “Asian” and “Hip-Hop” and “Celebrity Chef” and “Millennial” but it is all much simpler. Eddie’s not a chef, he’s a person who cooks.

His voice is one we desperately need in times like these because somewhere out there, there is a rapper sitting on the side of a tower, the mere mention of the title of this book making him more powerful, not unlike a politician who’s name we’re forced to say aloud. Inhuman me-monsters of obviousness are among us.

So, what’s wrong with a simple guy who cooks?

*Page numbers are taken from Double Cup Love: On the Trail of Family, Food and Broken Hearts in China, 2016, Spiegal & Grau. That was the edition reviewed.

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