What Eddie Huang craves most is to be understood. His first memoir, Fresh Off The Boat, was turned into a hit television show – but he hates the sanitized adaptation of his life story. He's the celebrated chef of Baohaus in New York – but he worries about selling out his Taiwanese heritage to please Western palates. He has his own documentary television show on Viceland, where he travels the world in search of food and culture – but he bristles when critics can't see past his loud-mouthed, pot-addled, hip-hop-inflected, self-proclaimed "human panda" persona.
So with Huang's second memoir, the continued quest for understanding is the common thread that attempts to weave together his disjointed narrative of food, family and love.
Double Cup Love – a reference to the proper way an esteemed rapper such as Drake would drink his codeine syrup – might not have been named as such if Huang's initial book pitch went as planned. Instead, a trip to China to see whether an American-born Taiwanese chef and his take on red pork could pass a sniff test in the motherland, to see what life would look like if the tides of Chinese migration hadn't brought his parents to the United States, was derailed by the messy parts of life that can't be planned as literary premises.
What could have been a laser-focused rumination on food and authenticity, on culture and assimilation, becomes a muddled spit-take on that whole mouthful and more. There's family: How thick does blood run when Huang has a falling out with his restaurant's business partner – his brother Evan? Then there's love: Can romance transcend hyphenated identities when he plans to propose to his Irish-Italian girlfriend Dena? (They first meet when Huang drunkenly offers her a sip of his double cup.)
In interviews, Huang often refers to his work as a Trojan Horse: His status as a chef is why you would read his memoir about cooking Chinese food in China. But once you're hooked, he will take the opportunity to drop knowledge on you.
His bait-and-switch would prove more effective, however, if Huang's revelations were truly revelatory and not, say, a rehash of his own television work. He offers a peek at the lives of young people he meets in Chengdu, who act as the window through which Huang sees his relative privilege of growing up American. They are the young, hungry creative class, passionate about their food, their hip hop and their pursuits. But their greater connection to the global culture outside China is coldly curated by government censors. A poignant moment to dwell on – if only I hadn't watched his Chengdu episode from 2014, which featured the same cast of characters, getting the same lesson from Huang about skirting the Great Firewall to download the latest Dipset mixtape. I couldn't help but absorb the majority of Double Cup Love, then, as raw outtakes and B-side material from a trip that piggybacked on a TV shoot.
Huang is relatable, if still uninspired, in the way he navigates the rest of his personal turmoil. Who wouldn't think twice about breaking up with a family member when a business relationship goes sour? What modern-day coupling, where first- or second-generation immigrants are involved, hasn't been forced to acknowledge even a benign instance of Othering? Huang, putting on his chef's hat for a moment, worries of a future child who might turn out "like those people at dim sum who only ate shrimp dumplings and crab claws." In the realest of moments, his love story goes awry shortly before the book went to press; a one-page addendum brings the final chapter up to speed.
But the themes of Double Cup Love are old hat for Huang, who covered them with more conviction in Fresh Off The Boat. That's a disappointment because of the impassioned Huang who lives on social media and TV. Credit his maturation as a cultural commentator in the few years since FOB: It feels provincial, now, for him to be looking inward when he is so galvanized by the world at large. Seek out his sustained reaction to the shootings in his hometown of Orlando. He has devoted much thought to the aftermath of the violence, taking time out of late-night appearances and book-tour conversations to address peace, unity and gun control. Firearms have been on his mind a while: There is an eerily prescient opening scene in Double Cup Love where, while high, he lambasts a friend for casually carrying an AR-15 assault rifle while watching a Celtics game
Huang, who most often brushes off haters as "middle-age people on Amazon" or "old-heads that … grew up listening to 10cc," should take less umbrage with those, like myself, who say he can benefit, sometimes, from more staid prose. With the help of star editor Chris Jackson, whose rarefied charges include Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jay Z and about whom Huang is effusive with praise, he has become one of the most unique voices in the pop sphere, where his constant code-switching between Southern "cot damns" and Mandarin "aiyas" creates a patois all his own. But read Huang's broken-hearted post-publication postscript on nymag.com: That slang- and footnote-free love-lost letter is the most directly affecting piece Huang has ever written.
For all the weaknesses of his sophomore memoir, Huang's real victory with Double Cup Love is that he finally, really, has been understood. But for this paragraph, I had no desire to place his work in any sort of Chinese-American and -Canadian canon. He hangs his narrative on an immigrant-done-good motif, but does so in an uncompromising way. He's always said that he never set out to chronicle the new Asian experience, that the stories he wants to tell are simply those he wants to tell. And so I see Huang for Huang and he's earned the right to be understood – and critiqued – in the context of himself.
Cliff Lee is an editor with Globe Life & Arts.