A Handful of Smoke & Pickles
Everyone has a story and a recipe. We cherish them because they are our reinventions. Our recipes convey who we were, are, and want to be. And this is reflected in the food of the best cooks across America, in homes, restaurants, and backyards and at county fairs and tailgates. We are redefining the landscape of how we grow, harvest, name, and eat our very own sustenance. There is a rich diversity in our cuisine — this thing that, for lack of a better term, we call American Cuisine — that is defined by our never-ending search for reinvention.
My story is one of smoke and pickles. Some say umami is the fifth flavor, in addition to salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. I say smoke is the sixth. From the sizzling Korean grills of my childhood to the barbeque culture that permeates the South, I have always lived in an environment where food was wrapped in a comforting blanket of smokiness. My friends found it odd at first that I, a die-hard New Yorker, would move to the South. But for me, it was instinctual. Smoke is the intersection that connects my two worlds. It is found in many incarnations other than the obvious outdoor grill full of charcoal or hardwood. I can add smokiness to any dish by adding bourbon — which picks up toasted notes from the inside of charred oak barrels — or bacon and smoked country hams, or molasses and sorghum, smoked spices, dark beers, tobacco, or meats blackened in a cast-iron skillet. And where there is smoke, there is always a pickle nearby. It’s a miraculous thing, the pickle. It’s nothing more than a ratio of salt, sugar, sometimes vinegar, and time. But with those few ingredients, you can create an endless array of preserved vegetables and fruits that are the backbone of so many cuisines. In the South, pickles and barbeque go hand in hand because nothing cuts the intensity of smokiness like a sharp pickle. Together they are harmonious, the perfect yin and yang. If I had my way, every dish would start with smoke and pickles — everything else is just a garnish.
Credit: The image at top and this excerpt are from the book Smoke & Pickles by Edward Lee. Copyright © 2013 by Edward Lee. Published by Artisan, a division of Workman Publishing Company, Inc.