An acclaimed chef and restaurateur travels across the country to explore the cultural history behind the evolving American cuisine.
Lee (Smoke & Pickles, 2013) takes readers on an edifying two-year ride in which he digs for the personal ties that bind cooks, restaurant owners, and loyal patrons to the food in their region. His journeys included an accidental four-day Ramadan fasting in Dearborn, Michigan, where he had no set plan but to devour Middle Eastern cuisine; a sojourn to the Texas coast to hear about the experiences of Vietnamese fisherman while feasting on Gulf delicacies; and a trip back in time to the Big Apple Diner in New York, where the author worked in the early 1990s. Along the way, Lee learned traditional cooking techniques like making smen, a Moroccan fermented butter, and he points out the essential role that both immigrants and longtime settlers play in the food we eat. “Our food traditions are the last things we hold onto,” he writes. “They are not just recipes; they are a connection to the nameless ancestors who gave us our DNA. That’s why our traditional foods are so important.” With plenty of lyrical appreciations of an impressively wide variety of cuisines, the author leaves readers craving the food he describes while also ready to attempt the advanced recipes at the end of each chapter—e.g. Amok trey, bourbon-washed butter, and pollo a la brasa. Lee effectively transports readers next to him during his encounters and inside of his thoughts during moments of introspection. A few hard transitions and seemingly unrelated stories may cause some confusion, but the author ultimately leads readers to a better understanding of the dishes he experienced and the recipes he provides.
A heartfelt and forward-thinking book in which Lee’s experiences and travel accounts successfully create an eager appetite for adventurous recipes, the stories behind the relationships of the people that inspire them, and a strong appreciation for the cooking traditions they’ve upheld.