When I first saw Buttermilk Graffiti on Amazon, I was thinking that it would be another cookbook from Ed Lee. Not like that is a bad thing, as it would have been a purchase as I loved his previous cookbook Smoke & Pickles. But I was pleasantly surprised to see it was more of a book version of Anthony Bourdain's show with Lee going to different parts of the United States and seeing how their regional cuisine came into be with recipes at the end of the chapters. This discovery made this book the next one I would purchase, and allowed me to do so on the Kindle which meant I would definitely read it more.
As Lee travels across the country to learn more about the different regional cuisines in America, the reader is brought into his head in much the same way the viewer of Ugly Delicious is brought into David Chang's head. I found the parallels to each story interesting in that they were both less focused on the fine dining aspects of cuisine and more on what people were eating day in and day out. Lee didn't go to a famous soul food restaurant, he went to two places that were sort of just women cooking from their houses that became restaurants. He didn't hit up Milwaukee's best restaurants, he went to the places that time has passed and were still serving the same thing from the early 1900s, but very few people were coming to outside of an older clientele.
The theme running through the entire book is that food itself is a journey, and that every one goes on a different food journey. Lee was trying to learn everyone's food journeys to help him understand his own, and force the reader to understand their own. All of this talk on people's food journeys and history really made me think: what has been my food journey?
What I discovered is that I don't have a family cuisine. Sure, there are things that my mom cooked that I really liked and I asked her for the recipes (Swedish meatballs, stronganoff, etc.), but we didn't have a culture of food in our house. There wasn't something in place that I knew every Sunday our family would sit down and have a large meal that was a tradition. There wasn't one group of food that we had more than any other. Why was this? I don't really know. Food just wasn't and still really isn't in our family's DNA. Sure we all love going out for nice meals, but sitting down and just cooking something together was never a thing we did. In fact, I would say the biggest food memories I have are of my dad burning things well cooking them on the grill.
I grew up believing that it was only my dad who had such lousy taste in food, but a lot of my parents' generation ate poorly regardless of nationality or wealth. Much has been written about the ills of the commercial food industry and the rise of fast food that dominated the 1960s and '70s in America. My dad was a part of that generation, and for him, eating at McDonald's was what you did if you wanted to assimilate into American culture.
Of course, neither of my parents had to assimilate into American culture. They were born here, but this passage resonated with me as a way to sort of describe our family's food background. Treats as a kid were going to your TGI Friday's, Chili's, McDonald's, etc. These were Friday night family meals and I have fond memories of them and still crave these places from time to time. I mean who can pass up the Chili's queso dip?
With this background, it really wasn't until a little over ten years ago that food even became a big thing for me. It was on a bachelor party to Las Vegas where I sat down and ate at Mesa Grill for the first time that I discovered how good food could be. It took me on a journey that led me first into hitting up as much fine dining as I could and then to cooking more and more. Now, cooking is something that I do both because I like to do it, and also now I hope that my family can have a food tradition.
But what is the basis of that food tradition?
I think that's what this book brought out in me. There doesn't need to be centuries of history for something, though it helps. There just has to be a tradition of what we do as a family that will end up having a huge impact on Jack and George as they grow older and continue to grow on what we are starting now.
the best cooking is not about perfection, but rather the flawed process of how we aim for a desired flavor.
Sure Lee here was talking about the different ways people ended up making cornbread, but this should end up being the way I think both about cooking and setting up traditions at home. It's not about being perfect, it's about aiming for a flavor or just something as simple as a nightly dinner with Steph, Jack, and George that turns into something more.
Quick Review: 5 out of 5 stars.