Chef Edward Lee says his new book is “the story of American food.” It is not a glossy book of food photography (there actually aren’t any food photos in the book, but more on that later). Instead, it’s a memoir, a history book and a travel guide.
Buttermilk Graffiti takes the reader on a tour of America, with stops in Paterson, New Jersey, Clarksdale, Mississippi, and other cities that are not exactly the dining destinations people think of in a Michelin Star-obsessed food culture. There are great meals in every stop, from a bowl of noodles in lamb broth at a Uyghur restaurant in Brighton Beach to sandwiches at a Jewish deli in Indianapolis that Lee ranks among the best in the country.
This is how Lee approaches food. The Brooklyn-born restauranteur has appeared on “The Mind of a Chef” and “Top Chef,” and his career suggests he’s not interested in others’ definitions of “high” and “low” food. The menu of his restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky, has included foie gras with a sassafras funnel cake: fair food with the height of fine dining.
Lee has shown love for White Castle-style burgers. And he’s created hybrid blends of Southern and Asian food, a style that earned him national recognition.
And he Buttermilk Graffiti doesn’t feature photos of recipes. Lee says that’s because “if you make a dish and it doesn’t look exactly like the photo, you might feel a sense of failure.” He also points out that humans have been following recipes without a photographic guide for decades.
“Food can be a bridge,” he writes. “The best, most thrilling dishes can result from joining two different worlds.”
Lee’s search for American food overlaps at a time when many people are asking “What is America?” A meal can be a way to bond, or it can be the setting for an angry discussion. Lee wants to connect over food, though that’s not always easy.
“I’ve always held the opinion that a restaurant should be a place free of politics. I’ve always believed that the role of a chef is removed from ideology. My table has always been, and always will be, a place welcoming to all,” he writes. “But as of late, the sad events in our country have been gnawing at my soul.”
What makes a food — or the people who eat it — American?
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