What are you reading these days? I’m focusing on travel, food, and culture these days and am currently reading Buttermilk Graffiti, by Edward Lee. Lee, a chef, writes about his travels around the US, tasting his way through the fascinating regional cuisines and new flavors, most developed and influenced by immigrants from the many cultures that have come to call the US home.
Yesterday morning I read about Lee’s adventures in Lowell, Massachusetts, a place I tend not to go. Lee seeks one of the last Irish-American social clubs in the city, run by an ex-boxer named Jack Brady; as well as what sounds like an outstanding Cambodian restaurant, Simply Khmer, owned and operated by Sam and Denise Phon Ban.
Lee writes about the changes in Lowell’s history, transforming from an early factory town at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution to an Irish-American town and then again to a Cambodian enclave in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge. He’s fascinated by Jack Brady’s boxing past, how his hands, even in an old, arthritic man, look like a boxers. And he write of Sam’s memory of the dishes he had as a child, before his family was forced to flee. Sam hasn’t exactly re-created them at Simply Khmer, but they are true to what he remembers.
Lowell has a reputation for being a rough place (I once served on a jury there and had to walk through some dicey patches to get to the courthouse from the commuter rail station), and not a place that most visitors seek out. But Lowell is more than that. The place has awesome architecture from its industrial past, and it also hosts a folk festival, folk being used in the best sense of the word, a multicultural music festival that’s just absolutely fantastic. If you’re around the Boston area in the summer, you should check it out. The last time I was in Lowell was with friends for the folk festival in 2018. Now I want to go back and hit up some restaurants.
Buttermilk Graffiti’s making me hungry
One of my roommates in college was a Cambodian immigrant from Lowell, and I’m reminded of the delicious food her mom would send back to the dorm with her when she’d come back from a weekend visit home. At that point in my life, I didn’t eat much beyond basic “American” food, but I still remember how much I loved her mom’s cooking.
Social Clubs in Camberville
Social clubs, like the one Lee writes about in Lowell, fascinate me, too, but I’ve never gotten into one. These private clubs, usually for a particular ethnicity, are dying out as older generations pass and younger ones move away or think of themselves and their social circles differently.
On my old walk to work, I passed not one, or two, but three social clubs, one for Italian-Americans, another for Greek-Americans, and a third for Polish-Americans. The Greek club has storefront windows, and nosy passersby like me can look inside at the older gentlemen smoking, playing chess, and day drinking. It’s so tempting to snap a photo, but I expect that those gentlemen might smash my camera.
My reading’s also making me conflicted
Honestly, though I’m not sure what to make of Lee’s book yet. His curiosity appeals to me, as does his adventurous eating and his obvious love of the people who make the dishes he rhapsodizes about. The subtitle of the book, A Chef’s Journey to Discover America’s New Melting-Pot Cuisine, refers to how the Brooklyn-born Korean-American chef who cooks southern cuisine in Kentucky melds flavors together and messes with traditions. The dishes he describes in the book, like the ones at Simply Khmer, aren’t entirely authentic, at least in the sense of them being unchanged from their origins. Lee’s recipes interspersed through Buttermilk Graffiti book sound fascinating. I’m going to try the beignets with matcha powder and sesame paste (I read about his adventures in New Orleans on Monday).
As a white woman, however, “melting pot” gives me pause. White people’s use of “melting pot” usually means cultural appropriation and erasure, of making culture and cuisine into something we whites can stomach. This watering down is a loss.
I’m reading, but it makes me nervous. Lee’s writing has not only made me remember my roommate’s mom’s cooking. It’s also reminded me of the horrible role my government played driving her family and Sam and Denise of Simply Khmer from the land of their birth. This is their home now, but, given a choice, they would likely not have left.
Thinking about being American
I am thinking more, not just from Lee’s book, but just more generally about what it means to be American, and what happens to after we have been here for a couple of generations. How we become something other than a continuation of the people who arrived here before us, because of our experience here. Some of those changes are tragedies.
In Buttermilk Graffiti, Lee travels around the US. Before this book, I read the Lonely Planet anthology Moveable Feast, on eating while traveling. There’s a theme here; I have some deep wanderlust, and I’m missing different flavors. Like Buttermilk Graffiti, some of the essays made me uncomfortable.
Encountering different cultures comes with risk. Many other essays, though, just made me miss life out in the world, tasting what life has to offer.
What are you reading? What does it make you think about? Let me know in the comments.