Brothers Matt and Ted moved to Charleston, S.C., as young boys, and it was the start of a love story with a city, it’s history, culture and especially, it’s cuisine. The Lee Bros Charleston Kitchen is their third book celebrating southern food and sensibility.
What was the inspiration for this new book?
Ted Lee: In our first book what we were trying to do was create an impression of southern cuisine as a regional cuisine. And then the second book was more fun interpretations of how we cook everyday stuff without sacrificing flavor and freshness. But we never really had the opportunity to go really deep into Charleston in our books. The thing about Charleston is it’s a really deep food culture and we wanted to explore this.
What makes Charleston such a unique food town?
TL: Growing up in Charleston you’re surrounded by food in a way that is unique. We’re right on the coast; everything grows there, so as a kid, you’re picking mulberries. You are eating them too- you have this foraging thing going on- that’s life. You learn this stuff when you’re about seven, and it’s a passage, like learning how to tie a drop line. Tie a string around a chicken neck; throw it over the dock and reel in blue crab.
We arrived as kids. It’s an urban community; it’s not suburban or rural, and it’s a very compact, dense city as well. Almost an island, with this rich culture and pressure cooker quality. And it’s centuries old, that’s another component to why it’s a great place to cook, there are traditions that we may not even truly understand but we can learn from them. Sesame seeds, eggplant, okra. There’s guinea hens, all foods which come from northern Africa. There are cultural traditions that date back to the 18th century.
There are just a lot of things going on. So what we wanted to do was in researching for this book was to follow our noses to wherever we were interested, but also to contend with some of the icons of the Charleston food space like Charleston receipts cookbook from the 1950 junior league. In the past five years, there’s been a lot of attention paid to Charleston, but it’s been mostly about the restaurant culture. What we are excited about is how consistently the home culture has grown. We wanted to go deeper and go to the source and interview the people who were involved in the creation of this culture and uncover some new material on old topics.
How do you work on the recipes?
TL: We allowed ourselves about two or three years and we did recipe development in the evenings and then we’d go out on a crabbers boat, we’d cast a net; we spent a day on a delivery truck to see what it’s like from the back door, we’re always challenging ourselves to do unconventional things.
We do things together. We rented a house big enough for both our familes for six months in Charleston. It was like our test kitchen house. We all stayed there (we fortunately had 2 wings) and we had a conventional home kitchen because we think that’s the best place to test recipes. We would get into the kitchen around 6pm and go as late as it took. That’s how we do all of our books.
Do you spend all your time in Charleston?
Matt Lee: Since we graduated from college and started the boiled peanuts mail order business in 1994, we’ve been bouncing back and forth from New York. Our office has been here in Charleston on Broad street since 1994. Certain times of the year we’re both here. Ted is mostly in Charleston, I’m here and go to NY about once a month.
We get energy from going back and forth- it really drives what we do, you get that perspective that you would never get if you lived here full time- the same applies to New York. Ted is so jaded by New York.
TL: It’s such a blast when I come to Charleston after being in New York. Then you land in NY and you’re dispersed into the city, and it’s inspiring. That sort of culture shock and change. I spend a lot of time in Brooklyn. It’s an easy transition because it’s such a quick flight.