Chef and author Edward Lee spent two years traveling the United States exploring immigrant communities' foods and stories. His new book, Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef's Journey to Discover America's New Melting-Pot Cuisine, chronicles his work. Pableaux Johnson moderates a discussion with Lee and chef Justin Devillier (La Petite Grocery) at a book signing event at Garden District Book Shop at 6 p.m. May 16. Lee spoke with Gambit about the book and his travels.
How did you pick which cities and communities to cover?
LEE: There were four cities that I definitely wanted to visit, and then the rest of the book happened organically. I would tell people what I was doing or what I was working on — trying to find narratives of underrepresented or small community cuisines — and every person would have a recommendation.
It inspired me to go see this country in a very different skin. It's almost like there is a narrative that floats on the surface of every city, and then there are subplots that exist under the radar with compelling stories. For example, the story about the Nigerian population in Houston is incredible. For someone like me, who didn't really know the essence of Nigerian food, it was an incredible learning experience — to learn about Nigerian food and how those Nigerians are trying to preserve their own culture, their heritage and their recipes in a foreign land. I think we all go through that. I don't care if you are of German heritage and (your family) came over in the 1800s or the Italians that came over in the early 1900s or Filipinos that came over in the past decades, we all struggle with that (question) of how much do we let go of to become American? And how much of that old motherland identity do we preserve?
Why are some immigrant food communities very visible and culturally appropriated while others are not?
L: The short answer is: I don't know. But part of the purpose of the book was for me to go out and see and experience it. I think it's a combination of history plus simple metrics. There are so many Vietnamese (in New Orleans) and a lot of them have chosen industries like the shipping industry or the fishing industry and the hospitality industry that makes them so integral to the food community that they're unavoidable. I also believe there is a bit of romance to it, or a narrative to it. With the Vietnamese, there was a tragic narrative. Most of them came after the Vietnam War and were not treated very well when they first arrived here. Because of the Vietnam War, we have this perception and a narrative about Vietnam, whether it's good or it's bad.
In one of the chapters I write about Cambodians in Massachusetts, and it was difficult to get a real handle on that because as Americans we've never had a real history with Cambodia; it's been very under the radar. With a place like Cambodia, it was just so mystical — there was no real reference point. Certain countries have more of a narrative in this country, whether it helps or hurts.
Ultimately there are a lot of characters and a lot of people and a lot of stories in the book, and I hope people come away with this idea that it is a really complex, messy and sometimes tense but often beautiful soup that we live in.
The longer a culture plants roots here — it just becomes American. (We) don't think of it as foreign anymore. I take sushi as an example. Sushi has gone so far away from what its origins were in this country. You can get it in a gas station, you can get it at the supermarket, you can get it at Walmart. It resembles nothing of what actual Japanese sushi is. But it's also infiltrated our culture so much that you can go to Des Moines, Iowa, and go to a gas station and have sushi. That's incredible!
Then there are also people that come to America and try to preserve this pure Japanese sushi. To me, both are valid and both can co-exist.
I make a distinction between the idea of tradition and the word "authentic." I love tradition. We need them; that's how are we defined. But authenticity, to me, is a much more loaded, almost sinister word. It almost reeks of "the truth" and the idea that there can only be this one true version of something. I just never thought that belonged in the food world. As you go down the rabbit hole of learning about all these different foods, we realize that authenticity is really an artificial construct that we usually come up with to try and sell something.
How do you see immigrant communities shaping our foodways in the future?
L: I like to say that the food of our neighbors will always end up at our own tables. It's just something that happens organically over time. Whatever immigrant narratives are happening now, those will be the foods that we adore in the future. For example, there's Nigerian food, which five years ago I was absolutely ignorant of, that I can guarantee you in five years or maybe even three years will be the hottest cuisine in America. It happens that fast. And jollof rice — I did not know that word existed five years ago — will probably be as ubiquitous as bibimbap in five years.
If we turn off our phones and we turn off our news feeds and we really look at our neighbors and the people around us, it's absolutely amazing. We forget how lucky we are to have this in this country, to have this diversity.