Stories from America’s Melting Pot of Cuisine and Culture

Buttermilk Graffiti, by Edward Lee (Amazon / Book Depository)

This says a lot about who we are as a culture now; we care about the person behind the recipes. For us, it is important to know as much about the cook as we do about his or her dishes. Cookbooks are living traditions. They reflect back to us who we are, as individuals, as a culture.

Edward Lee is the child of Korean immigrants in New York City, now his home is Louisville, Kentucky. A chef and owner of several area restaurants, in his cooking Lee explores intersections between what constitutes “American” cuisine and how it’s been influenced by the varied cuisines brought to the country by immigrants, and, interestingly, vice versa. As he puts it:

I’m less interested in what my parents’ food looked like back in the mother country than I am in what happened to it once they’d brought it to Brooklyn and it had to coexist with that of other cultures, when their kimchi had to be made with Jamaican chili powder instead of Korean chile flakes.

In his kitchen, he eschews the traditional and likes to break rules if it means creating a new twist on a staple or achieving a unique flavor. Because of his own background – growing up in New York with heavy Korean influences, followed by his chosen home in the South – he’s constantly looking for those junctions, for what “authenticity” means, how one culture influences and changes another, and what’s lost with assimilation. Buttermilk Graffiti is the result of his travels around the country exploring the vibrant “melting-pot cuisine” that’s developed out of strong regional roots and the inspiration of faraway lands fading from memory.

This is a book that celebrates the uniqueness of American identity. I once had to explain to someone why the Kennedys were American, against insistence that they were Irish, so why do Americans hold them in such high regard? There’s so little concept outside of the US (and I think Canada) of how it’s possible to be Irish-American, Korean-American, whatever-American. I’m not sure Americans themselves realize that, and how special it is, how much it says about us as a people and a culture (current administration aside). This book is a beautiful celebration of how that’s possible, and how much richer we’ve all been made for it.

I read a little piece about it this week and couldn’t get a copy fast enough. I’m always recommending Sarah Lohman’s Eight Flavors, because it taught me so much about how American cuisine developed and the amazing impact it’s had from other countries via international influence. I love Lee’s idea of looking at what gets lost as immigrants blend in and become ‘Americanized’, but how they nevertheless contribute to the diversity of national cuisine. While living abroad, I find myself endlessly defending American cuisine from a near-total ignorance of what it actually is, ranging from “There’s no such thing” to “It’s just hamburgers/hot dogs/packaged foods.” I’ve tried to explain this concept many times – that actually, it’s a rich blend of cultural influences and international cuisines with regional emphases, but it’s obvious I’m not believed. If only it was as easy as telling someone to read this.

Lee’s memoir in 16 narrative essays is not only about food, but about identity, race, class, economics, history, and so much more that constitutes the multifaceted American character. He describes each locale he visits and what drew him there – what special dish or enclave he’s looking for, often his preconceptions about the cuisine or place. Sometimes he sets out to interview a specific person about their restaurant, other times he lets things unfold as they will, talking to anyone who’ll answer and asking the right questions.

It’s not a cookbook, but he includes several recipes with each story, giving his personal, fusion-y takes on the specialties he’s tried. Most are a little complex or unusual-ingredient-intensive for the average home cook, and too heavy in weird meats for me personally, but I bookmarked a few and already made his coconut rice (amazing).

He tags along with another chef on a road trip through Appalachia where he’s eventually won over by West Virginia’s beloved pepperoni roll while observing the region’s stagnant economy (“The paradox of poverty nestled in an Edenesque forest of abundance is everywhere”), extols the unsung praises of German cooking, claims that the sandwiches from a Jewish deli in Indianapolis are better than Katz’s, investigates Caribbean “fusion” in Miami and Vietnamese shrimpers in Galveston, fasts and feasts alongside the large Muslim population of Dearborn, Michigan during Ramadan, and explores the significance of soul food in his own Louisville, among other explorations.

My favorite was his visit to Brighton Beach and a restaurant serving the lesser known Uyghur cuisine, from a nomadic Central Asian people straddling Russia and China.

Russian food never makes the lists of top cuisines in the world, but to wander through these markets, you quickly see that those lists are wrong. This is ridiculously good stuff: everything from pelmeni to vareniki, blini to coulibiac, from different-colored borschts to jellied fish and meats.

Minus the jellied fish and meats, he won me over for life around this point.

There were some elements I didn’t like – it took me awhile to get into his writing style, which feels somewhat simplistic until an emotional moment or message hits you unexpectedly. A woman running a beloved soul food restaurant in Louisville tells him simply, “God made me a square peg and then put me in a round world.”

For me, it really hit after the second time someone he spontaneously met in his travels quietly paid for his food after telling him stories about their cuisine, culture, or town. I was wracked with homesickness – that’s the America I know and that shaped me and what I want to insist on holding on to when we dominate international headlines for the worst reasons: we can be such a kind, generous, giving people. I’ve seen it more times than I could tell if you had all day to listen, and I try to embody it despite living in a place with a cold, me-centric culture. Lee shows so much of what America has to be proud of in these essays.

I mention this because I can’t imagine that this book wouldn’t have such an emotional effect on other readers, even if some anecdotes tend towards the thinner side here or there. When it makes an impact it’s a big one.

This somewhat simplistic style lends itself perfectly to food writing, which can be so over the top and riddled with purple prose. For the most part his descriptions of what he was eating were more evocative than eyeroll-worthy and underscored his experience perfectly.

I didn’t like a story about a sex worker, that his Nigeria piece included a bit about Nigerian email scammers, and some memoir aspects didn’t click for me. But he ties his points together beautifully overall, and I especially loved his honesty, his curious and kindhearted persistence when so many chefs don’t want to talk about hard times or difficult pasts or to share their kitchen secrets. I loved that he showed himself in awkward or embarrassing moments too and discusses race in straightforward, meaningful, and even funny ways (“How odd it must have been for them to see me, a cowboy shirt–wearing Korean American man, crash through their front door breathlessly asking for slaw dogs.”)

And he does something else commendable by refusing to allow nostalgia to color his perceptions, a potentially dangerous path this could’ve taken. He thoughtfully weaves in current events and considers past and present with a constant hopefulness for what’s to come.

For me, the conflict is always the tension between nostalgia and the present. If we live in nostalgia, we will strangle the possibility for a future. But without it, we don’t have stories; we don’t have people preserving a culture before it slips away into an elusive memory, a kind of oblivion.

There’s so much more to the story of American food than outsiders, and sometimes even we ourselves, give it credit for. Lee’s sympathetic and heartfelt look at diverse communities, backgrounds, and generations is a worthy testament to a resourceful, resilient and creative people who all represent America in their own way, all with a lot of haht (spoken like an Irish-American boxer he meets in Lowell, Massachusetts, who would know.)

As chef Norman van Aken, his hero, tells him:

“What do we lose when we become Americans?”…Do we abandon our forefathers’ cultures in favor of an American identity?
“We do,” he says, “and then, at some point in our lives, we feel an undercurrent pulling us back, and we rediscover who we are. And what is gained? The future.”

Buttermilk Graffiti:
A Chef’s Journey to Discover America’s New Melting-Pot Cuisine

by Edward Lee
published April 17, 2018 by Artisan
(Amazon / Book Depository)

 

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