Chef Edward Lee — of 610 Magnolia and the recently opened Milkwood in Louisville, Kentucky — doesn't like the word "fusion." "Not only because it is dated," he writes in his new book, Smoke & Pickles, "but also because it implies a kind of culinary racism, suggesting that foods from Eastern cultures are so radically different that they need to be artificially introduced or 'fused' with Western cuisines to give them legitimacy." Rather, his particular brand of cooking, full of Asian and Southern flavors, is fueled by a "broad culinary vernacular." If that's the case, then the much anticipated Smoke and Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen, out May 1 from Artisan (pre-order on Amazon), is his lexicon.
Too often, narrative in cookbooks is simply fluffy filler between recipes; thankfully there's none of that here. Lee has a strong voice, and the stories that weave through the book are illustrative and interesting. The recipes themselves offer a way of thinking about food in addition to being blueprints for actual meals. The book is chock full of pantry items that could be used in myriad ways (seasonal kimchee variations, anyone) and recipes for rice bowls appear in each section, a demonstration of riffing on a theme.
Unfortunately, occasionally the book's design distracts from its contents: photos are heavily filtered and sometimes appear photoshopped, and a few pages have an odd faux-torn effect. Still, Lee's cooking and concepts shine through all the noise. Will Smoke & Pickles, as Anthony Bourdain puts it on the cover, "redefine American food as a whole"? Perhaps not, but bank on it being one of the best cookbooks of the year, despite its flaws. Below, a trailer for the book:
Video: Smoke & Pickles Trailer