Edward Lee may be a multi-year James Beard Award nominee and “Top Chef” participant, but the subjects of his new book, “Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef’s Journey to Discover America’s New Melting-Pot Cuisine,” aren’t high-flying culinary celebrities; they’re the restaurant owners and family chefs that he met while eating his way across the country. What interests the chef of 610 Magnolia, Milkwood, and Whiskey Dry in Louisville, Ky., is the origin story of a meal, the person who prepared it, and the fascinating and ever-changing picture of American cuisine.
“To me, when you eat something delicious, that’s the beginning,” Lee explained to the Los Angeles Times. “Whenever I eat something that’s truly transformative, I want to unravel it all, and it starts with the person cooking.” That included, in Clarksdale, Mississippi, Lebanese sisters who make cabbage rolls, and, in Montgomery, Alabama, a Sabo Suya Spot where people line up early to eat food made by a former Nigerian prince who moved to Texas in 1997 to work as an agricultural engineer.
Lee, a Korea-born chef raised in New York, is famous for embracing the cuisine of the American South. He is chef and owner of two restaurants in Louisville, Ky., and the culinary director of restaurants in Washington, D.C., and Maryland. He spent two years traveling across America to visit the front lines of our evolving culinary landscape, stitching together a tapestry of American cooking that celebrates “not the white picket fence version we are used to seeing, but the one that exists in every town just beneath the surface, embodied by the diversity in the labor economy.”
“I wanted to put myself in places of discomfort,” he said. “If a Korean kid from Brooklyn can be in the good graces of the South in Louisville, I can talk my way into anyone’s culture.” How? Lee celebrates the story of American food that arises from authenticity, tradition, and humility. “I didn’t want to come at it from a place of authority,” he said. “It’s OK to not know about something. It’s OK to make some mistakes culturally, and it’s OK to offend people if you’re doing it in the bigger picture to try and learn.”
Does everything have to be assimilated to be American? This is the question Lee asks after his trip to Dearborn, Mich., a small, industrial town home to the first Ford Motor plant and the largest Arab-American population in the United States. Following a humbling conversation in a Middle Eastern bakery, Lee decides that the most authentic way to experience the region’s cuisine during Ramadan was by fasting.
“Sometimes, before you even get the food, you have to dance around the culture,” said Lee. “I would never have gone to a mosque if it weren’t for writing a food story.”
At sundown after his first full day of fasting, Lee writes, “After a day’s fast, the flavors and fats cling to your bones like medicine and heal you from the inside out.” Adding, “I feel I’ve learned more about being human from attempting to fast. I learned to eat or not to eat in a city that is trying to preserve a culture that was born thousands of miles away and thousands of years ago. Maybe Dearborn is not your typical American city, and maybe we want them to be so much more assimilated than they want to be. But we love the hummus their culture created, and the falafel and the lamb kebabs and the yogurt sauces and the flatbreads. They give us those freely, and they don’t complain when we make them our own.”
Lee’s focus on the often anonymous people behind the food we eat speaks to his concern with meaning and substance.
“Maybe the lady in the home kitchen isn’t doing something with a vacuum sealer,” he says of the untrained cooks he met traveling across the country, “but I can tell you the food I ate on these trips was as good as anything I’ve eaten in any restaurant.” Their tact, resourcefulness, and ingenuity moved him. “I can’t tell you how many times I actually cried, or was on the verge of crying, listening to these people and their stories and their devotion to food,” he said.
The stories that makeup Lee’s America are as much about food as they are about culture, tradition, immigration, and assimilation. “You have your own story and your own history and your own connections to make,” he writes in the final pages of “Buttermilk Graffiti.” “What I found was in smaller towns and smaller places, you still find authentic food, but [the cooks] also have to weave their way around this thing called American culture.”
In New Orleans, LA., for example, Lee learns that the history of the beignet varies depending on whom you ask, and that it’s impossible to separate it from its once more famous cousin, the calas, which can be traced back to Africa. In Mississippi, Lee discovers a Lebanese kibbeh made with beef, not lamb, because beef is a local favorite and it’s cheaper. And in Westport, Conn., he is taught how to prepare Moroccan smen from a recent immigrant from Marrakesh.
In this spirit, Lee conveys a story of American cuisine that blurs the line between authentic versus fusion cooking; everything is a mash-up. “Immigrants arrive, cultures collide, and out of the push and pull come exciting new dishes and flavors,” Lee writes. “Maybe part of being American is releasing the anchor that we have to our heritage. Maybe it is this very conflict that defines who we are.” Or maybe American cuisine is indefinable precisely because in attempting to define it,” he says, “you’re also asking: What is America?”
“Buttermilk Graffiti” does not provide an answer to that question, but it does give us some perspective. And a little perspective can go a long way. “Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef’s Journey to Discover America’s New Melting-Pot Cuisine” was named a Best Food Book of the Year by the Boston Globe, Smithsonian, BookRiot, and more.
Edward Lee is the author of “Smoke & Pickles;” the chef/owner of 610 Magnolia, MilkWood, and Whiskey Dry in Louisville, Ky.; and culinary director of Succotash in Washington, D.C., and National Harbor, Maryland. Find him on Instagram and Twitter @chefedwardlee.