Smoke & Pickles, Some & Pickles, Smoke and…
This Suess-ian mouthful of a food mantra is the delightful, unforgettable and groundbreaking title to Chef Edward Lee’s premiere cookbook.
Lee was the featured speaker at a recent Beard on Books talk at the historic James Beard townhouse in New York City.
A true American success story, Lee is a son of Korean immigrants, a native of Brooklyn and a two-time (or is it three? His web site says two but there are three years posted) James Beard finalist for Best Chef: Southeast and whose two restaurants Magnolia 610 and the more casual MilkWood, described as “Southern comfort food with an Asian pantry” are located in Louisville, Kentucky.
That’s quite a mouthful too.
All that abundance of mouth-watering magic is the mash up of culinary ingredients and culture at the heart of Lee’s distinctive narrative.
It’s a simmering seesaw ride – a balancing act between culinary cultures, food idioms, popular art and regional connections that on first pass appear to be totally unrelated.
But given Chef Lee’s unique take on his world – our world – Smoke & Pickles is in the end, a connect-the-dots culinary adventure via his recipes with food as common ground and our universal experience.
The book is a kind of personal and cultural gastronomic discovery.
As chef Lee finds his own culinary courage he also embraces the history and provenance of immigrant Korean dishes by way of his grandmother and the South by way of affinity and destiny.
There is no doubt collard greens are an iconic Southern dish.
Korean Kimchi is an iconic dish too.
Lee explains how kimchi proliferated during and after the Korean War. “Cabbage grows like a weed. It’s cheap and sustainable,” explained Lee.
And along with rice, it sustained an entire generation, Lee added.
Further, he noted that in most every culture poor people make something out of nothing.
“It’s a triumph for the dish culture. I love that,” he said.
Lee’s Smoke & Pickles Cookbook is like these observations and testimonials.
It’s more than a cookbook in so many ways.
It’s a culinary intersection at the crossroads of Korea, Kentucky and Brooklyn. (Wish he grew up in Canarsie – it would have been so lyrical to say, Korea, Canarsie and Kentucky.)
As Diane Harris, Director of Educational and Community Programming, James Beard Foundation said when introducing Lee, “It’s about the connection to grandmothers and not giving up old ways...”
Harris noted that Mr. Beard also loved the melting pot of cultural cuisines that made American food so distinctive. “Chef Lee love Southern fried chicken – and so did Mr. Beard,” added Harris.
There is no doubt of Chef Edward Lee’s charm and that of his cookbook, Smoke & Pickles.
He notes that his name Edward Lee is a form of a certain currency in the American South – the Civil War Lee and all that.
Then when guests or readers see him, they are rather bewildered.
While chef Lee is engaging, one doesn’t really get a sense of the scope and seduction of the cookbook until reading it.
It is equal parts a sensory experience: the cover is a tactile culinary talisman – a rabbit’s foot that you want to keep stroking because the title text is indented.
Or put another way, the visuals are raised.
Either way, it’s yet another nod to an artistic balance.
A quick flip through the cookbook delivers a curious and tantalizing mix of photographic images.
While there is no stinting on terrific, appetizing, in-your-face ingredients, food images, and step by step cooking prep that any cook -- novice or experienced – really wants in a cookbook, there are also plenty of magazine-like images that wouldn’t seem out of place in a travelogue, a fashion art or music periodical. (There’s more on chef Lee’s music metaphors.)
A lot of the images could be categorized as a really, really good Facebook page – because there are a lot of “candid” or action shots of chef Lee performing charity or karaoke or smoking and grilling or shopping or just drinking his beloved bourbon.
While this Examiner has a pretty good-sized part of a home library devoted to cookbooks and has reviewed a respectable slice of cookbooks – not to mention having written her own successful cookbook, there are far too often those cookbooks that are just too cute – too precious and too contrived.
The “authors” are trying to be so clever in combining recipes with a hook or brand that the content gets lost.
The opposite is the case with Smoke & Pickles.
It is the kind of book one will enjoy reading, sharing; delighting in learning things you never thought about and ultimately, cooking from.
At first glance the Contents might appear to be that somewhat snarky or unreasonable, too-cool couplings that frustrate the reader because they in fact, have nothing to do with each other:
Lamb & Whistles, Cows & Clover, Birds & Bluegrass, Seafood & Scrutiny and Pickles & Matrimony, to name a few.
But in fact, the Content pairings are a platform or a jumping off point for telling chef Lee’s stories.
He was, after all, a lit major and has a way with words.
What chef includes a chapter heading devoted to Veggies & Charity? Who takes the space to do that?
It’s an authentic rendition of chef Lee’s attempt to create a charitable legacy – to make a difference that mattered to him – and to the Louisville Metro Youth Detention Center.
“No lectures,” he writes. He just believes that everyone deserves a good meal.
He makes yet another insightful, meaningful connections here: from the teens in the program to the sprouts and seedlings at a favorite, local farm that need equal parts nurturing, and his immigrant upbringing and the welcoming/shared potluck meals.
Or, take Cows & Clover, for another example.
This narrative briefly tells of Lee’s love of Korean BBQ and especially Kalbi – with its “charcoal-fired sweet-soy-and-pungent garlic aftertaste” and his first way-too-cool-hipster restaurant on Mott Street in NYC and then how he felt he blew an opportunity to impress Jeremiah Tower of Chez Panisse fame, and his frustration and melancholy was so disappointingly visceral and so following the attacks of September 11th that brought it all to a head he determined he’d take a week to go to the Kentucky Derby. He wanted “to take his shoes off and walk barefoot through the fields of clover. “
… It became “a week that would change my life forever” he wrote.
It’s another curious to this Examiner that Jeremiah Tower started the self-reflection and the loss of the Twin Towers punctuated his life change…
And then, after this poignant life catalyst about him, what is the next page?
Wasting no time on self-absorption chef Lee jumps right back to the food with a recipe for beef, rice, onions, collards, fried egg and corn chili rémoulade.
A few recipes later is his Braised Beef Kalbi with Edamame Hummus – one assumes a tastier version that his disappointing game-changer served to Tower.
At the Beard on Books talk, we learned chef Lee went to the Kentucky Derby in 2002 not only to reinvent himself but also in search of bourbon.
Sealing his Southern fate, he met his beautiful wife Diane in Louisville and now they have a new baby daughter.
He writes, “Everyone has a story and a recipe. We cherish them because they are our reinventions.”
The Book’s Organization
There is a more than abundant narrative in each chapter heading that makes for introspection and fascinating food history lore.
Lest a determined cook think this is all culinary history – do not fret.
There are detailed recipes that are easy to follow, with numbered steps and fun and interesting head notes.
There are also full pages presented as dialogue boxes on topics such as Curing, Four Seasons of Kimchi, Cabbage, or Southern-Bred Oysters.
Further, each chapter’s ingredient-focused icon (lamb, veggies, rice or beef, for example) signals a boxed “tip” that is helpful, educational and fun to read.
Here’s one from the chapter “Buttermilk & Karaoke” for making Tobacco Cookies:
“The tobacco leaves should be taken from a good-quality cigar. When you unroll the cigar to make Tobacco Water, reserve a small amount to be chopped for the cookie batter.”
Korean or Southern superstitions or lore help kick off each chapter.
To whit: “If a young girl leaves rice in her bowl after a meal, she will end up with a pimply-faced husband. “
What about the Smoke & Pickles?
“Pickles are a lot like love stories,“ he opines.
He writes that his story is one of smoke and pickles.
“Some say umami is the fifth flavor, in addition to salty, sweet, sour, and bitter.
He believes “smoke is the 6th.”
From Korean grilling to Southern barbeque and from the kimchi from Lee’s culinary ancestry to the Southern pickles that go hand in hand with the smoky bbq, Lee sees the bridges and connections from the seemingly disparate worlds of Korean, Brooklyn and Louisville.
It’s a nice link. A metaphor. A raison d’etre. But really, who cares?!
Smoke & Pickles is a good read, brimming with exciting, adventurous recipes that are fun and easy to make.
Adobo-Fried Chicken and Waffles?!
Or raw oysters with rhubarb mignonette.
Or Cardamom Ambrosia Salad with blue cheese dressing. Here chef admonishes, “If you are even thinking about using dried coconut flakes from a bag, don’t bother with this. Sweet fresh coconut meat is what makes it a standout.”
Where have you seen a chef or cookbook author tell you to step away from the recipe?!
One of the veggie icon boxes tells how to make the citrus suprêmes and how to prepare the fresh coconut. He makes it so very sensual and exciting!
Chef Lee goes on to recommend a chilled glass of Lillet as a perfect accompaniment with this salad. (www.lillet.com)
Couldn’t agree more. Lillet is one of this Examiner’s favorite, refreshing aperitifs and the orange slice in the glass will tastefully and visually complement the orange and other citrus including grapefruit and Champagne mangos ingredients in this recipe.
So many of the Smoke & Pickles recipes are an adventurous journey – not just a different take on a tried and true, more or less, traditional recipe.
Here, it’s all pretty much new. Sorghum nutty flavor? Kimchi Poutine? Miso smothered chicken?
Why, it’s a mouthful food fantasy just saying the names of these recipes!
The book has heft too, coming in at just about 300 pages. There are three pages of resources for everything from the Col. Bill Newsom’s Aged Kentucky Country Ham (www.newsomscountryham.com) to Regan’s Orange Bitters from Buffalo Trace Distillery, along with some local in-market shopping and Internet, web-based shopping tips.
Chef Lee told the Beard on Books audience he would soon be announcing his own line of branded Kentucky Bourbon scheduled for an August debut.
He is collaborating with Jefferson’s Reserve’s master blender Trey Zoeller to create well, Chef’s Collaboration - a bourbon he described as food friendly.
So in the end, chef Lee gets the restaurant, the Kentucky Derby, and the ultimate in bourbon – his own label. Oh, and he got the girl too.
Southern dreams come true.
Chef Lee is seemingly everywhere to promote his book and collaborations.
Check here for local event schedule:
Chef Lee is also a smart cookie in that he unabashedly works with sponsors and promotes their products, including Red Boat Fish Sauce, Pork. And others.
Chef Edward Lee’s book, Smoke & Pickles has blurbs from no less than Anthony Bourdain (this one prominently featured on the book cover above the title. Talk about a culinary adventure endorsement...
Other culinary celebrity blurbs include fellow Korean American David Chang, chef and owner of Momofuku empire.
Smoke and Pickles can be purchased from a variety of sources, including Amazon
Elizabeth Thacker Jones was at the Beard on Books talk to snag chef Lee for her successful and influential Food Book Fair next year: (www.foodbookfair.com)