What do food and graffiti have in common? Nothing, you might think, until you read Smoke & Pickles, by Edward Lee, a chef who compares the impermanence of a meal to the impermanence of graffiti. A Korean American raised in Brooklyn, Lee writes that graffiti was his “first cuisine,” and recalls going around the city with an older truant, spray painting walls while dodging authorities. “Graffiti’s never supposed to last. How many remember the art on the L train or a mural on 145th Street? The hardest things to hold on to in life are the ones that want to disappear.” Twenty years later, as he’s enjoying a grand meal with another chef, he realizes that the food will become a memory, “soon to be painted over by another meal.”
Perhaps that’s one reason Lee wrote the hefty, hard-covered cookbook, and created something a little more permanent, even though the Internet has increasingly become the go-to source for recipes. Smoke & Pickles proves itself to be much more than a typical cookbook. Lee is a very good writer, and in his pages, even a simple, everyday staple becomes deeply appetizing as he encourages us to make rice in a cast-iron skillet to achieve three distinct layers: paper-thin skin on top, fluffy rice in the middle, and a crunchy layer of toasted rice on the bottom.
Each section of the book begins with personal stories of Lee’s childhood, his training in France, his first years running a restaurant in Manhattan—a BBQ joint which attracted hipsters and celebrities—and his eventual move to Louisville, KY, where he matured as a chef and continues to live today.
It’s hard not to be charmed as the 13-year-old Lee convinces his parents to take him to a fancy restaurant instead of sending him to baseball camp. It was a meal that would change the course of his life, and he recalls the sauce that was served, a rémoulade that was “creamy, crunchy, sweet, and sour…. Somewhere in the folds of that little brain of mine, something clicked, and I knew I would spend the rest of my life chasing the seduction of food.”
Lee takes the seductive element further as he writes that as a teen, he’d peek into issues of Gourmet “like they were Playboy, lusting after lamb roasts.” Later on, he says that it’s “super sexy” when the yolk of an egg breaks over a plate of steak tartare.
After moving to Kentucky, Lee became more involved in the farm-to-table movement, but not just in the feel-good aspects of growing organic vegetables or building relationships with local farmers. One chapter describes his first time visiting a slaughterhouse, where he participates in the killing of more than 30 pigs. It’s a thoughtfully written section, and it’s laudable that Lee shares the experience, knowing that some readers would be repelled.
More appealing are the sumptuous photographs and recipes that expand the traditions of American cuisine. Disparate ingredients come together in dishes like collards and kimchi, cola ham hocks with miso glaze, chicken fried pork steak with ramen crust and buttermilk pepper gravy, braised beef kalbi with edamame hummus, and many other interesting concoctions. But whatever you do, don’t call the food “fusion,” as Lee can’t stand that word. “It implies a kind of culinary racism, suggesting that foods from Eastern cultures are so radically different that they need to be artificially introduced or ‘fused’ with Western cuisines to give them legitimacy,” he writes. Whether or not one agrees with that statement, Lee’s wonderful book gives lots of inspiration to try new things in the kitchen.