Matt and Ted Lee are almost accidental food celebrities. A winter craving for boiled peanuts in New York City in the 1990s turned into a mail-order company, which turned into a lot of travel-writing assignments, which has turned into three well-regarded Southern cookbooks. Their first book, The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, won a Beard Award in 2007, and 2011's The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern won Best American Cookbook from the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
Now the Lees are back with an in-depth look at their hometown. In The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen (Clarkson Potter), the brothers explore the history and culinary traditions of Charleston, S.C., revamping classics that the city is known for, like shrimp and grits, and creating fresh new recipes like a kumquat chile Bloody Mary and grapefruit chess pie. It's the rare cookbook that reads like a history—and it even includes a map for your next trip to the coast.
Both Matt and Ted will be visiting town next week, signing books at Union Ave Books before heading over to the Public House for a guest bartending stint. Laura Sohn, proprietress of the Public House, says, "We will be serving up a tasting plate with small bites of Henry's Cheese Spread, Shrimp + Grits, Boiled Peanuts, and Grapefruit Chess Pie. Our cocktails will be the Rock and Rye and the Hugo." (The Hugo, named after the infamous hurricane that severely damaged the South Carolina coast in 1989, is a more intense version of a Dark and Stormy. Which, yum.) If you're a fan of Southern food, you won't want to miss it.
You've done a lot of historical and foodways research for your new cookbook. How long did all of that take?
Matt Lee: A lifetime, to start. [laughs] A lot of our leads came from our insider knowledge of Charleston, but really I guess it took about two years. We started in 2008 and turned in the final manuscript in 2011.
How hard is it for both of you to write in one voice?
Ted Lee: Actually, I don't think it's that difficult. We're very different cooks ... but I think we have a very similar perspective on food—an outlook that's curious and hungry. We're each a writer and an editor. We pass [writing] back and forth like a football until it's done. It's a very time-intensive way to write, but we have very little conflict.
Do you have different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to cooking? Are either of you better at something than the other?
ML: I guess you're more likely to tackle baking. TL: Yeah, I'm definitely the recipe follower, so I'm more likely to tackle baking. Matt's the more intuitive cook. ML: It's like there's a road map, and I sometime veer off it, but I'm still always looking at the map for guidance.
Your new book revamps some famous Charleston recipes from some famous Charleston cookbooks, like Charleston Receipts. Did it make you nervous at all to tinker with the classics?
TL: I think in this day and age, people realize recipes are more morphable. The open-endedness of old recipes leaves a lot of room for failure. If you're writing a modern cookbook, you want your recipes to be executable in Anchorage, Alaska, or in Taos, N.M. ... The people who think these recipes are fixed are fooling themselves. Life is such that no one will follow your recipe to the letter always.
Speaking of locations across the country, there are a number of recipes in your book that use ingredients really specific to Charleston. How hard is it going to be to source some of these things if you aren't on the coast?
>TL: We realize that people aren't going to be able to find loquats or chainey briar [a local green the Lees encourage foraging] outside of Charleston, but we tried to make our recipes adaptable as possible. Especially with the fish issue, we prefer not to specialize species—we try to characterize the qualities of fish so people can make substitutions. ... Even in Charleston the fish market might not have a given fish every day, or every season.
So why do you think Charleston has such a special food tradition?
TL: It might just be a matter of scale—the cultural influence from around the globe. Charleston might just have seen more, from the days in which it was an important hub of shipping and culture. ... It may just be that we perceive it to be [a better food town] because it's getting all the attention with all the high-profile restaurants, like Sean Brock's Husk. But we wanted to take the focus away from the restaurants. What we wanted to do is shine a light on the home-cooking environment in Charleston, as is documented in Charleston Receipts. It's the best-selling Junior League cookbook—it's sold over a million copies and it's still in print.
You've been purveying Southern foods and recipes since the 1990s, but it's just in the past couple of years that the Southern food trend has really taken off nationally. Has that surprised you at all?
TL: It hasn't. .. If you think about the 1980s, when Americans got really into cooking the cuisines of Italy—I think it's comparable to that. The South would be the region of the country with deep and colorful traditions, and it has its own regionality, like Italy. I think cooking Southern food allows you to travel through the kitchen in way you can't with food in the Northeast or the Upper Midwest. I mean, you can, and I know there are chefs in those areas committed to exploring their local cuisines, and we love visiting there and eating their food. But for the rest of us, you just have to dig so deep.