The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook
W.W. Norton & Company
We know the Lee Brothers can write. The two have penned numerous food stories for the New York Times plus a stack of travelogues for Travel + Leisure. Their stories are witty, detailed, and fun to read. But with the release of The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook comes the question: Can these boys really cook?
It shouldn't be a surprising query. These nonnative Southerners who moved to Charleston as kids (and don't even have a Southern grandma to teach them how to make a crockpot of pinto beans correctly) got their start as Southern food experts simply by boiling peanuts — not the most ambitious dish on the planet, even if it is rather quirky and very Southern.
Matt and Ted Lee's story should be familiar to local foodies: two brothers with impressive educations (Harvard and Amherst), are living the typical post-graduate lifestyle, working crappy jobs and/or trying to find crappy jobs, while barely subsisting in the big city, when they one day decide to boil some peanuts in their tiny New York apartment.
"It started from being in a situation that a lot of people find themselves in," says older brother Matt. "What do I do with my life? In the South, what comes naturally in that situation? If you had to make a dime, you boil peanuts and start selling them on the side of the road."
Their approach, however, was much more New York than down South. They were hoping to turn boiled peanuts into the hot new food trend, a la edamame.
"We thought we would turn New York City onto boiled peanuts. We'd start with the Southern restaurants and take over New York," laughs Matt.
"And what you figure out," says Ted drily, "is that the Southern-themed restaurants are owned by guys from Long Island."
Needless to say, the trend never took off. But they did get the attention of a New York Times reporter who wrote a small feature, uncovering a previously unknown market for boiled peanuts — other ex-pat Southerners.
"We got 100 calls that day," says Matt. "Everyone, all these Southerners, started asking for all this other stuff too. 'Can you get me Duke's mayo?'"
From there, the Lee Bros. Boiled Peanuts Catalogue was born.
"We did the catalog and moved back to Charleston," says Matt. "We got our office and little warehouse on Broad Street and have been there ever since."
And with the catalog, a hand-stitched booklet that features typical Lee Bros' stories and a wide variety of Southern pantry staples, is where their writing career began. "The editor of Travel + Leisure happened to be a customer and said, 'can you guys do a story about upstate South Carolina and connect with your suppliers?'"
And now, a decade later, they've got their very own Southern Cookbook, which contains basic recipes for boiled peanuts, cheese straws, ham biscuits, pimento cheese, and succotash — dishes you'd find in a typical Junior League cookbook, but here presented with what makes the Lee Bros. so compelling — a story.
The book begins with a narrative that charmingly confesses to the fluke that started them down the path to becoming Southern food experts. They essentially parlayed an eye for character, a taste for food, and the ability to tell a story into a bona fide career.
Funny enough, the Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook showed up in the City Paper offices on the same day as a copy of Robert Stehling's Hominy Grill recipe book, and in trying to answer that first question — can the Lee Brothers actually cook — we pitted Stehling's sublime buttermilk pie recipe against Matt and Ted's Sweet Potato Buttermilk Pie, an original recipe of theirs that was admittedly inspired by Stehling's.
The answer to that original query came from the mouths of the many people who tasted the results — hell yes, they can. The sweet potato pie proved to be every bit as delectable as the buttermilk version, and several folks actually preferred it. The recipe proves that the boys have the ability to take a standard recipe and riff on it to the point that it becomes a completely original dish.
"It's playing around in the kitchen and trying to do something different, more original," says Ted. "You start from reading through Charleston Receipts, and you get to the stew section and there's an oyster and benne seed stew — 'wow, never seen that.' It sounds great, so you cook it."
"In these old fashioned recipes, you can feel the Depression-era," adds Matt. "Everyone's holding back. So you take the idea and you play around with it and eventually you say, let's add a shot of paprika or cayenne or fresh ginger and suddenly you work up a recipe that's original and owes everything to the past. That's the really creative stuff about what we do."
Other creative twists include scuppernong sake, creamed mushrooms on waffles, and a new ambrosia, which eschews marshmallows for avocados. And that's the kind of thing they get the most blowback from their Southern foodways friends, who just don't see the point sometimes in changing the way it's always been done.
"We were on the dock at Limehouse Produce and we were getting some crowder peas," says Ted, "and Jack Limehouse was saying, 'oh, you can't do scuppernong sake.'"
But they did. Their cookbook offers something for both novice and accomplished Southern cooks, and that's the ability to mess around with tradition.
"We wanted to create a spirit in the cookbook, sort of license-giving, just do it. Ultimately you've got to make food that you love to eat."
And what do they make of a cook-off between their recipe and Stehling's?
"We concede. Stehling wins. Who else can deep fry cornbread? He's a genius."
BooksigningMatt and Ted Lee will sign copies of their new cookbook and ply fans with boiled peanuts and country ham. Mon. Oct. 23, 7-8 p.m. Barnes & Noble, 1812 Sam Rittenberg Blvd. 556-6561. www.bn.com
Cooking DemoAt Whole Foods, they'll demonstrate three easy recipes for cocktail foods and sign books. Tue., Oct. 24, 4:30-5:30 p.m. Free. 923 Houston Northcutt Blvd. 971-7240.
Cooking ClassIn a two-hour cooking class, Matt and Ted will demonstrate recipes from their new cookbook, including A New Crab Dip, 83 East Bay St. Shrimp and Grits, Tuesday Collards, and Sweet Potato Buttermilk Pie. Tue., Oct. 24, 6:30 p.m. $60. Charleston Cooks!, 194 E. Bay St. 722-1212. www.charlestoncooks.com