Do you love cookbooks as much as I do? For a long time, I scoured flea markets and antique malls for those little church potluck publications or someone’s old handwritten recipe book. I have family recipes, too, and I love to shop new cookbooks as they come on the market. Somewhere along the way, however, I started to value cookbooks for their literary value more than the actual recipes. I’m not sure when that happened for me, but my favorite cookbooks have become the ones that tell a story.
Smoke and Pickles by Edward Lee is an outstanding choice in this category. You might know Lee from his 2012 turn on Bravo’s Top Chef or because he’s been a finalist twice for a James Beard award or, like me, saw him on a weekend morning news show where I was intrigued enough to go searching for his cookbook. If you don’t know Lee? Well, let me tell you. Or, better yet, let him tell you himself…
Lee was raised in Brooklyn, part of a Korean-American family. He spent formative years as a graffiti brat before getting a job at fifteen busing tables at Terrace 5, “a small, snooty restaurant” on the 5th floor of Trump Tower in New York City. This was a time in the world where “the cult of food had not yet been born.” Chefs performed well, were largely uncredited, and certainly weren’t stopping to sign autographs and take selfies with the masses in the streets. Lee, through circumstances you can read about in the book, found his way to Kentucky. He found a unique relationship between his Korean food influences and those in his newly adopted American South. According to Lee, smoke (as in bbq and spicy pork) and pickles (as in fried or kimchi) are the common ground in his culinary mashup of two distinct cultures, allowing him to add a new taste to Southern fare.
Among his recipes of Edamame and Boiled Peanuts, Pickled Chai Grapes, and Adobo-Fried Chicken and Waffles, Lee talks about his family, his passions outside of food, and his acquired love of both buttermilk and bourbon. This is a cookbook, yes. Have I actually made anything from it? No, not yet. Have I thoroughly enjoyed the storytelling that pops out between the tasty-sounding recipes? You betcha! Lee’s mantra is, “What I cook is who I am.” Pour yourself a bourbon, and discover for yourself in this great cookbook.