What is American food? Who are the people responsible for our different cuisines? Why is the notion of “authenticity” bandied about in our food culture, as if to suggest one’s version of a recipe is superior or more real than another’s? What about food traditions? These questions and more gnawed at chef-author Edward Lee as he studied a picture on one of the pages of a spiral-bound booklet called Favorite Southern Recipes, published in 1937 in Virginia. The photo was of an unnamed, somber-faced African-American woman wearing a servant’s outfit. One of Lee’s favorite cookbooks, the booklet contains a collection of recipes without attribution, save for a sentence on the table of contents that only credits Mrs. Robert E Lee.
He thought a lot about the unnamed woman and how the cookbook would read had it been written by her. Were any of those dishes and techniques hers, and not properly credited? Chef Lee, who is Korean-born, Brooklyn-raised and now a four-time James Beard-nominated chef of restaurants in Louisville and in Washington, D.C., travels the U.S. over the span of two years in search of answers to his questions about our evolving American foods. He aims to give a voice to people and cultures that are not as recognized for their foods, yet who help define America, and what American food is all about.
In the book, we meet the Brooklyn owners of what could be the only Uyghur restaurant in the U.S., whose Lagman Soup—noodles made with lamb broth—emotionally unravel Lee. He discovers what it means to be more human by fasting in Dearborn, Michigan, a city with a large Muslim population. He realizes the ideology about chefs being neutral and restaurant kitchens as places free of politics is no longer realistic as he explores his own hometown through the eyes of chef Tunde Way. Way travels the country hosting “Blackness in America” dinners about race, identity, and white appropriation. We also see how Café du Monde’s beignet is a wormhole into both New Orleans’ Creole culture and Lee’s earlier experience of befriending a young mother and prostitute, while working at a coffee shop in a sketchy New York neighborhood.
Chef Lee will be visiting the Cuyahoga County Public Library’s Brooklyn Branch on June 20 as part of the national tour for his latest book, Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef’s Journey to Discover America’s New Melting-Pot Cuisine. Edible Cleveland caught up with Chef Lee to discuss his experiences in unraveling the stories behind some our nation’s wonderfully diverse immigrant foods.
Q: The views of traditional American food, as you know, are being challenged. What is American food?
A: I think that’s part of the question I’m trying to answer. To me, there’s nothing that connects us more than food. The connective tissue in our country is diversity. We can have a Jewish breakfast, an Indian lunch, and an Italian dinner, and it’s not strange. It’s normal. It’s not that way in other countries. And it doesn’t stop, which is so incredible. The process of immigrants moving here, introducing new foods, and transforming cuisines is part of our nation’s ongoing story. We’re seeing some exciting trends as a result.
Q: Like what?
A: I think we’ll see more Nigerian food and Cambodian food. German food has been here a long time, but it’s so fully integrated, we don’t even think about Germany when we eat a pretzel or a hot dog or drink a beer. I think we will see a German food resurgence.
Q: The issue of cultural appropriation is talked about often. Who owns a recipe or can claim a cuisine? What do you think?
A: It’s fascinating. We don’t talk about pizza being Italian. We think of it as American. We’re seeing more people think of bibimbap as a rice bowl and not a Korean dish. I don’t think any one person or even one culture has the right to own food. Food is a shared experience. It’s communal. All food is appropriated. Even the cake you made from the recipe you grabbed from the neighborhood bake sale, to the trips chefs take to investigate and discover other cultures’ foods—they’re appropriated. What we need to be aware of is respecting and understanding the foods, and give credit where credit is due.
Q: Thus, the unnamed African-American woman in your Favorite Southern Recipes cookbook.
A: Exactly. I don’t know about Nigerian food or Cambodian food, but part of what I wanted to show was, what can we learn about these cultures, and the people. Who are they? What are their traditions, and how can we learn more and understand them? The opposite of appropriation is collaboration. Collaboration is about sharing.
Q: During your travels in Dearborn, you write about your unexpected experience in fasting, which is rooted in the notion of experiencing sympathy for the suffering and for humanity. You wrote that the experience helps you learn more about being human. Why does food help bridge understanding and cultural divides?
A: Food is so powerful. It’s a meeting place. You might be in a room of people who may not all agree on politics and religion, but no one’s going to argue on how delicious that hummus on the table is. Food starts the conversation. I don’t care what culture you’re talking about—everyone likes fried chicken. Food is a gateway and shows that we all have more in common versus our differences.
Q: What surprised you most during the research for this book?
A: How friendly everyone was. People didn’t know I was a chef and had been on TV when I walked into their restaurants and said, ‘Hey, I want to write about your culture and food.’ I can’t tell you how many times I had been invited into people’s homes. Do you ever hear a lawyer say, ‘Hey, let’s talk more about law at my home?’ I think a lot about the people I’ve met and the relationships that have developed as a result of this book. The son of the Cambodian couple I wrote about reached out to me and said he was so moved by the book. We’ve been communicating back and forth since. I find it so encouraging. We need to stop looking at the world through Facebook and look at it through food.
Q: What do you still have yet to learn after your researching and writing?
A: Oh, there’s so much. There were some additional chapters I wanted to write about, but ran out of time since I was up against my deadline. … the Somalis in Maine, the Indian population in Seattle, the Cuban population in Louisville. I’ve had numerous people reach out and talk about different communities right in their own hometown. There are endless places, people, foods, and traditions to discover.
Q: Your book contains 40 recipes created by you and inspired by the people you met. Do you have a favorite?
A: The recipe for the Lamb Arayes with Tahini Dressing and Pickled Sweet Peppers. The lamb sandwich is not that hard to make. The pita is homemade, but it’s a simple recipe to follow. You can take the components, and you don’t have to turn it into a Middle Eastern dish. Go ahead and fill it with Carnitas, and add in a Mexican influence.
Author Edward Lee will be at the Brooklyn Branch from 7pm-8:30pm on Wednesday, June 20. For more information, visit https://attend.cuyahogalibrary.org/event/680755
—Kathy Ames Carr