“I believe in the power of stories,” Louisville-based chef/restaurateur Edward Lee writes in the epilogue to Buttermilk Graffiti, which is now in paperback. And stories — along with a selection of sometimes exotic, sometimes accessible recipes — are what he delivers in his excellent second book, which shifts from culinary confessional to memoir, from road trips to ethnographic inquiry.
The stories begin in New Orleans, where Lee moves seamlessly between memories of a drunken college visit to a present-day pilgrimage to the Café du Monde. The chapter goes on to spin out other threads, including a class on William Faulkner, Asian desserts, his first restaurant job in a New York City diner, a hooker named Brandi, and Vietnamese immigrants to the city. He takes readers across the country, from Lowell, Massachusetts, and Brighton Beach, in Brooklyn, to Clarksdale, Mississippi, Indianapolis (where he says you’ll find the best Jewish deli in the United States), and other cities. Throughout, Lee weaves stories about the people he meets, the food he eats, and the restaurants he visits with insights about his past and observations on the ways new immigrants are impacting each city’s culinary history and possible future.
A visit to Dearborn, Michigan, during Ramadan, weaves all the narrative threads together. Dearborn is home to the largest Muslim population in the United States and, during Ramadan, the devout are required to spend the month fasting between sunrise and sunset. When Lee questions locals about the tradition and the foods associated with it, he is told, “You don’t learn about Ramadan. You must experience it.” Taken aback, he agrees to fast, and does so for four days, realizing when he returns home that this trip was unlike any of the others undertaken for this book.
“Oddly, I did not write much on this trip. I forgot to get names; I didn’t collect menus,” wrote Lee, who came to national attention on season nine of Bravo’s Top Chef. “I realized that once I took myself out of the role of the observer and became a participant, I didn’t have the desire to write. I didn’t interview people; I just talked … but I felt I got a little closer to understanding the food. I could taste the devotion, which is everywhere in the culture: the prayers, the fasting, the rituals. I’ve been eating hummus and tahini and falafel all my life, but for the first time, I understand why these foods feel so deeply enriching. After a day’s fast, the flavors and fats cling to your bones like medicine and heal you from the inside out.”
Lee is a master storyteller, illuminating diverse settings and personalities in sometimes crisp, sometimes poetic prose. And all the while, he deftly skates through what he calls the “unlikely couplings that make up the narrative of life in America” — an accomplishment recognized by the James Beard Foundation, which presented him with the 2019 award for Best Book of the Year for writing. — P.W.B.
Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef’s Journey to Discover America’s New Melting-Pot Cuisine by Edward Lee, Artisan Books, 320 pages, $15.95