I search the library at random for Statesider-esque reading material; that’s how I found Chef Edward Lee’s new book, Buttermilk Graffiti. Before I’d even finished the introduction, I wanted to talk with him about this celebration of American diversity. I scribbled an email and, because I am a dork, I commented on how much one section in his book reminded me of the “Lost Our Lisa” episode of The Simpsons. He responded almost immediately.
Because I don’t spend much time in food media — and because I had the book on audio, with none of the physical trappings — I did not know the book won a James Beard award (and several others). I did not know that Lee was featured on Top Chef and Mind of a Chef, that this wasn’t his first book, either. “Oh, shit,” I thought, “He’s kind of a big deal.” I just knew that the passion he so clearly felt for the gift of America’s diversity deeply resonated and I wanted to talk with him. I’m so grateful he responded to my request.
Lee’s book combines curiosity with deep appreciation for the complexities of American society. While a lot of it is about food, it’s also the travel book I didn’t know I’ve been looking for. I’ve lightly edited the interview for clarity and well, I would say brevity, but there was so much interesting stuff that I kept nearly all of it. And you, Statesider reader, must read this book. It’s a joy. Go get it. — Pam Mandel
I want to dive right into a meaty conversation in your book that you had with your friend, Chef Norman van Aken. You’re having a meal and you ask him, “What do we lose when we become Americans?” Talk to me a little bit about that.
We [almost] all come from somewhere else. Some people have been here for generations, and some for only a few years. What makes America so great is the fact that we have come from somewhere and we contribute to this melting pot, and we’re influenced by each other.
We live in very close proximity to other cultures. My focus is in food, so… it doesn’t matter where you live in the US. You’re not far from a Mexican restaurant, a Chinese restaurant an Indian restaurant, a Japanese restaurant. All these things influence how we look at the world and who we are. That diversity is how I define what’s American. It’s a place with an incredibly diverse landscape. When you start to become more, quote unquote American, you lose some of whatever that hyphenated part is.
When I was young, I spent six months in France and I was all, “God, I’m not going to have a taco for six months.”
I was born here, so it’s different. I look at my parents who have now been here for almost 40 years. They’ve become less Korean over the years, more American. They still speak with an accent, they still read Korean newspapers and watch Korean soap operas on TV. When they go back to Korea… I’ve had this conversation with them. “You’re older now, do you want to go back to Korea and, and live out your days there?” And they’re like, “No, we like it here better than Korea.” So there’s this idea we do lose that … whatever that is.
That’s part of being American, this idea that we lose a little bit of that other identity in order to contribute to this new identity, whatever that is. In doing so, we have to give something away. We all say “Korean-American” or “Chinese-American,” and I understand what that means, but you can’t be a hundred percent American and a hundred percent Korean.
When I talk to my Korean friends about The Simpsons, they just don’t get it. There are the things that are truly American weird things, like when you understand The Simpsons. No one else in any other country quite understands The Simpsons. You could be Pakistani or a Chinese American or Jewish American, but if you get The Simpsons, it’s this weird thing that binds us together.
There’s, I wouldn’t say it sadness about it — but how do we preserve those things about our origin stories, right? So, six generations ago your family was from Poland. How do you preserve that? For my parents, it’s easy to preserve because they still know it. It’s harder for me because I’m the next generation. It will be so much harder for my daughter.
Over the generations, it becomes as otherness that’s forgotten very quickly. Do you preserve it? How much of it do you preserve? What’s the center? What parts do you preserve? [I’m interested in] the thing that gets preserved.
When you come from another country, the first thing you lose is the language, right? My Korean is terrible because I don’t practice every day. Then you lose ritual and tradition, and maybe you forget religion. The last thing we completely let go from that origin culture is food.
Oftentimes it’s the only thing held over after generations. My wife’s family is from Germany. They’ve been here seven or eight generations. No one speaks any German. No one has ever been to Germany. No one knows anything about German culture. But they still make sauerkraut from scratch every fall.
When I tell that story I am shocked at how many people do the same thing. How many Italians have kept a sauce recipe or that meatball recipe, and they’ve lived here since the early 1900s! So much about why we get nostalgic and why we hold recipes and food to be so precious is that oftentimes it’s the only thing that links us to that far away culture of our origins.
Have you lived overseas?
Yeah, I lived in Korea for about a year and a half in my early twenties, right after college.
Did it change what you thought about what it means to be an American?
It made me feel more American. Especially because I was Korean. I went there with the idea that this was my homeland and these are my brothers and sisters, and they were like, “Nah, you’re American.”
I’ve spent time in England and other places. And when you do that, you realize how American you are. You think, “I like it here. I want to stay for a while, but I don’t want to live here.” We complain about America and how many problems we have here. But then you spend time abroad there’s something, there’s a longing, and part of it is the diversity.
I was in Korea for a year and a half and I got sick of hanging out with other Koreans. I missed white people. I missed Indian people. I missed seeing Black people. Korea is a monoculture, right? And most countries are a monoculture. When I go to Sweden, it’s like, it’s beautiful here, but gosh, there’s no black people.
We don’t realize how diverse we are. As much as people want to divide us, it’s part of our culture and it’s part of who we are. And when you go overseas, you miss that and you’re like, “I want a really good taco and I’m not going to find it.” When I was young, I spent six months in France and I was all, “God, I’m not going to have a taco for six months.”
I grew up on the west coast. I lived in San Jose, which was Mexican, Chinese, Vietnamese, and I lived in Austria on and off for a while. One time I was in a cafe in Austria and the waiter was black. I stared at him for a long time and I finally thought, “You have to stop doing that. Stop staring at the black guy. That’s not cool.” It had been so long since I’d seen anyone of color.
And the thing that I used to crave was tom kha gai; you can’t get it there. And I would get these insane cravings for pho, especially in the winter.
There was a taco place in France with the worst taco I’ve ever had. A French guy assuming he knew about tacos and maybe he’d been to Mexico once. That’s the gift of immigrants: they bring this touch for food, this taste for something. We’re fortunate, I feel like Americans are very spoiled in that way. I can have a real Jewish pastrami sandwich, and turn around and have incredible Indian goat biryani for dinner, then the next day I can have really good southern fried chicken. There is no other country in the world where you can have that diversity.
If you perceive America through social media, it’s a dark and gloomy place; but if you feel America through the experience of one-on-one interactions with people, it’s an amazing country.
That’s part of why I wrote this book. To celebrate that diversity, that beauty, that, that richness.
In your book you go to places we don’t normally think of as travel destinations. I’m curious about the motivation, how you pick your destinations.
When I was doing the research, I told everyone I knew what I was doing. Every single person had a suggestion. I would take tons of notes and then I would do my online research. I started with a few things I knew about Lowell, Massachusetts, or I knew about Michigan.
From there it started to bloom. During the two years I worked on the book I talked to a lot of people. Of course, if you go to Chicago, New York or LA, you’re in centers of diversity. Of course you’re gonna find great immigrant food there. I think it’s more interesting when you go to Clarksdale, Mississippi, when you go to Michigan, when you go to places that we don’t necessarily think of as hotbeds of diversity.
I wanted to write about all of America’s diversity. The narrative might be that the American south is a monoculture and it’s all white racist people, but the reality is it’s not. If you strip away a layer or two there’s incredible diversity, incredible depth. Whenever I hear about bigotry — I’m not naive, it happens — but it’s always sort of an abstract. It’s always from someone who doesn’t know what’s going on.
More often than not, when I go to these places, I find little communities of diversity where the people get along wonderfully. That was both surprising and encouraging to see and experience in a real way that was not about reading a Facebook headline, not about hearing it on a podcast. To drive into that community, live there, see it, experience it, talk to everyone. There’s incredible harmony.
There’s always going to be an outlier. There’s always going to be people who carry hatred. But, for two years I drove through these small towns everywhere. What I got was this gift of food and abundance and love and joy. Had I not had that experience, I wouldn’t have faked it, I would’ve been honest about it. But it truly was an awesome experience.
I was in Indiana for a writer’s conference and I was invited to a concert in a corn field. And, Indiana has this terrible reputation, especially with gay rights. I get there and the band was a terrific R&B band and the crowd was, I don’t know, 75 percent lesbian? I love being surprised like that. I had to look at my own assumptions about Indiana.
I think those people need to be more vocal. I live in Kentucky, right? The home of Mitch McConnell, but Louisville is a very progressive city. The neighborhood I live in, there’s six gay bars within walking distance of my house. No one thinks of it as anything. That’s what it is, a falafel place and a gay bar. And a laundromat and there’s a supermarket…it’s just the community.
When people say, “Oh, Kentucky’s this.” I’m like, yeah, but you have to come see it. Yes, there are rednecks here. There’s rednecks everywhere. There’s also this incredible community that’s really beautiful. I think that’s the beauty of traveling.
I encourage people to get out of the hotel, get out of the tourist area, go out and walk the streets, go to some local diner, feel it because it’s so different. If you perceive America through social media, it’s a dark and gloomy place; but if you feel America through the experience of one-on-one interactions with people, it’s an amazing country.
Every city, every town, every little village I’ve ever been to, people are proud of where they’re from. If you’re visiting, they want to show you a good time. They don’t want you to go home and say, “Ugh, Indiana.” I think that’s also a very American thing, when you’re proud of your hometown and you want to show it off. When you get out of your head and experience it one-on-one… I feel like great people are everywhere.
You mentioned we should get out of our homes and and go places that we might not consider going. I would assume that you are against any kind of red state boycott, that you think that’s not a good idea.
I think whenever that happens and you say, “Oh, we’re gonna pull out of this whole state,” what you’re in fact doing is creating more division — it’s going to become more of a red state. I don’t think you should go out of your way to make a trip there, but there are things that happen beyond the realm of politics, right? In Georgia, in North Carolina, there are really, really good people that live there. They’re fighting the good fight. And if you decide to ban the entire state, then you’re doing a disservice to everyone that lives there. If you’re going there to go whitewater rafting, what do you care about the politics of it? I understand some people have their issues, but I think that attitude creates more division and more of an unhealthy dialogue
Part of what I love about food is that it brings people to the table together. People who have different opinions disagree on the politics of the world. You may be red, you may be blue, you may be whatever, but everyone agrees fried chicken is delicious. And if you can sit together and have a cold beer and eat fried chicken, maybe you start to perceive the other person as being not so inhuman or not such a monster. You find common ground. We all have to find a way to live together.
And there’s no country on this planet that’s going to do a better job. We have to figure out our commonalities. I’m obviously not huge into politics, but I tell my friends — which pisses them off terribly — I tell them, “You have differences between liberals and conservatives, but you actually have a lot in common. You don’t want to admit it, but it’s true.”
One of the things that food does is it’s almost that neutral, safe place. Well, you can say, “Fine, I don’t believe in anything you believe in, but we both like fried chicken.” That’s a great place to start. I don’t think food is going to save the world, but I think it’s a pretty good start. It creates a safe space where we can all talk and commune. It’s like Thanksgiving dinner, where your family gets going. You, your uncle, you don’t get along. You find a way to be civil and you find a way to commune. That’s all you can ask for. Maybe you’re not going to change anyone’s mind. They’re not going to change yours. But you find a way to be a human being.
We forget how massive this country is. When I started this book, my first question was, “What are we, who are we, what defines us? What is the common thread between Seattle and Southern California and the Texas panhandle? And Appalachia and New England and Detroit?” Sure, we all speak the same language and watch the same TV shows. But these cultures are vastly, vastly different. There’s little about the culture of Maine that has any common thread with the culture of New Orleans. Very little. You may as well be entering a foreign country.
I didn’t come up ultimately with an answer. But part of it is our diversity. We Americans are almost defined by our vastly differing opinions and how vastly different we can be from California to New York. Instead of using that as a dividing thing, we can try and bring people together and say, this is exactly who we are. We argue all day long with each other about things. It’s part of who we are as Americans. We love to argue and debate.
Like one big ethnic family.
We’re one big ethnic family! And like any family, we really get on each other’s nerves all the time. Like any big family, you all love each other too, and you’re spice for that person. Even though you hate your sister in law, if she were in trouble, you would be the first one there to help her. We get to this point where we can love our diversity and love our differences. We can say, “Oh, I hate you. You, North Carolina.” And as soon as someone goes, “Well, I hate all Americans,” it’s like, wait a second, wait a second, we’re a team.
That’s what I get from my travels in America. As much as I like traveling globally, I just love traveling through America. There’s so much out there and it’s different. In this modern era of malls and, and especially on the highway, everything looks the same. And we think of America as being this monoculture, but it’s not. Once you get beyond the malls and the tourist traps, every place is so very different. The traditions are different and the food is different and there micro-cultures and micro-pockets of people.
We’re taking a road trip soon throughout Tennessee and Virginia. There’s a whole weird nature scene, white water rafting, kayaking, rock climbing. Extreme sports. There’s a whole culture, which I’m not into, but there’s a whole subculture of that in Tennessee. It’s not the first thing you think of when you think of Tennessee. But as I’m researching things and talking to people, there’s these nature freaks [laughs] as apparently Tennessee has some of the most diverse preserved wild lands in all of America.
I’m excited to see that, but that’s not the usual narrative of Tennessee, not the first or second listing on Google. Travel requires the traveler to do the work. You can go to Dollywood, do the touristy thing and that’s fine. You’ll have one level of experience. But you’ll only see Tennessee as a one-dimensional thing. The more work you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it. It’s like reading a good book.
You can’t be a passive traveler. It’s not like you can go into a place and think, “Hey, entertain me.” We have to do the work. Once you scrape past one or two layers, every place has incredible things to offer and that’s the beauty of travel.
Cake or pie?
It’s always going to be pie. I just had the best blueberry pie. Wild Maine blueberry pie.
From a historical standpoint, cake was a rich man’s dessert. Cake was originally designed when sugar was exploited. When sugar first came out, it was expensive and only the nobility and the rich could afford it. With refined sugar, you are able to create cakes and icing. In its origin cake has always been something that was very expensive and very rarefied.
Oh, no. I’m so bourgeois!
Ha, yeah. That’s why to this day we still take cake for birthdays and stuff, it’s a celebratory thing that you reserve for special occasions. Whereas pie was something you made because you had an abundance of peaches or blueberries or whatever. You couldn’t eat raw peaches every day, so you’d make pies to preserve them. It was a farm thing. To me, pies are the grassroots of the hungry farmer making do and cakes are the more refined, sophisticated thing.
Need more pie? Of course you do.
Revisit our interview with pie expert Kate Lebo.
I always considered myself more of a ruffian than part of the noble class. That’s my reason for choosing pie. That said, I will never refuse a beautiful cake.
Where would you get said pie? What’s the pie that has stuck in your consciousness?
I just had that blueberry pie, it’s in my head right now, but all over the South you’ll find something called chess pie. We make different versions of it at the restaurant (610 Magnolia); that’s where I eat it. It’s probably my favorite dessert in the entire world, especially when it’s warm.
Find more from Chef Edward Lee at chefedwardlee.com, and buy his latest book Buttermilk Graffiti, which (as you can probably tell) is a brilliant read. You can also find him at all the usual places: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook.