The "Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen," written by Matt Lee and Ted Lee, is a breath of fresh air for a city saturated by recent attention paid to its cuisine. With more than 100 recipes and photos, maps of walking and driving tours, and stories to accompany nearly every dish, it explains the simple but sophisticated culinary allure of the South Carolina port city, ranked number one on Condé Nast Traveler’s “Top U.S. Cities” list for the past two years and voted their readers’ favorite city in the world for 2012.
The book opens with an image of the two brothers coasting along a street on skateboards. They're wearing tailored jackets, ties, jeans, and sneakers, and the backdrop is pure Charleston: ornate wrought iron, lush green, and an arched doorway on an historic building with shuttered windows. Their effortless merging of formal and casual also comes through in their Southern hospitality and well researched attention to detail. Who wouldn't want to kick back with these two nerdy yet cool guys over a Moonshine Martini garnished with boiled peanuts, nibbling on their Deviled Crab or Pickled Shrimp with Fennel?
Yesterday we spoke to Ted by phone, just after he landed in Charleston from New York. A few hours later, he and his brother would host an oyster roast for more than 100 people to celebrate their hometown launch of the book. He answered our questions thoughtfully and graciously, like he had all the time in the world.
Growing up in Charleston, what was the culture like in terms of cooking?
I think the reason that Matt and I work together and are interested in food is that we moved to Charleston at a young age from New York City. We arrived here when I was eight, and Matt was ten. When you move to a new city as a child, you’re processing all this cultural change. One of the easiest things for us to grasp on to and get a hold of was the food. The differences between New York and Charleston were kind of wondrous and crazy. Kids our age already knew how to fish, how to catch crab and shrimp, and we didn't know any of that stuff. There was all this new amazing material that was really compelling, and I think that’s why we bring a sense of wonder to what we do. It’s almost child-like, my interest in Charleston’s food.
In the introduction to your new book, you say “We’re not a ‘foodie’ town; we’re a food town, pure and simple.” I like that distinction. What do you really mean by it?
I’m always mesmerized by how much I don’t know even though I grew up here. If you’re from outside of Charleston, you don’t really realize how much food is a part of life here in the low country. It’s just what we do. It’s not really an identity. That’s what I was getting at with “this is a food town, not a foodie town.” We don’t wear it like a garment...it’s just part of us, part of our flesh and blood, rather than an identity that we chose. It’s just in us because we grew up here.
Here you remember the first time you shucked your first oyster, and the first time your parents trusted you with an oyster knife. There are a million rites of passages and rituals related to the food world that, as a kid, you don’t even notice as being related to food. You’re a kid -- you don’t really care. It’s fun to catch crab. You think crab is delicious, but you don’t really connect it in your mind. Your mom might cook up the shrimp that you caught, but you don’t think of it as a food pursuit, it’s just a sport. It’s a part of life.
What brought your family from New York to Charleston?
My parents were academics raising three children, and living in New York in the '70s wasn't really easy. I just think they were kind of worn out. They had visited Charleston and had friends here.
Is your attention to research and historic context related to being raised by academics?
Maybe [laughs]. My dad’s a professor of medicine, so he’s always been in a lab. We've always been geeks.
What’s your take on the influence of cooking shows, like those on the Food Network?
I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Food Network for mainstreaming the discussion of food. There are so many ways into the discussion -- so many more ways now than ever before. We welcome that. We're not academics, we're people who cook. We contribute to a show on the Cooking Channel called Unique Eats, and we've just signed a deal with a production company to record a pilot for a television show in late March.
What should first-time visitors to Charleston have for a meal?
Shrimp and grits definitely -- that’s one of the icons of new Charleston, certainly. She-crab soup is a classic. And there's a Charleston okra soup that's tomato-based and made with hearty beef bone. Rice dishes are huge here because Charleston was a rice-growing region. Rice dishes with protein from the sea, typically oysters or shrimp cooked up in a broth, are really delicious. Hoppin' Johns is a classic dish with rice and red field peas. There are so many great dishes and so many great restaurants to have them in. In the new book, Matt and I really wanted to shine a light on the city’s home cooking traditions. There’s been a lot of attention brought to the fairly new restaurant scene here, which is so exciting, but Charleston has always had a great home cooking tradition. The culinary through lines are what unite people.
How would you describe your collaboration with Matt?
We've been working together since 1999, when we wrote our first story for Travel + Leisure magazine. We were running a mail order business selling boiled peanuts and other Southern staples, then one of our customers asked us to write about traveling around South Carolina and eating, and we embarked on a second career as food and travel journalists. We share a similar palate and a similar interest in the fact that every story about food is really a story about a person -- and getting to that. We grew up in the same environment, with similar mentors in the world of food. That said, we're very different cooks. He's a more intuitive cook; I'm more of a recipe follower. He's a neater cook; I'm messier.
Do you still feel like an outsider observing the food culture of Charleston?
We're complicated Southerners because we weren't born here. We have a weird Southern-but-not-Southernness. We can get perspective on it every now and then because we didn't grow up with a Southern grandmother. We can see how special and exotic it is. Or we can be locals…it depends on what community we're with. To the kids I grew up with, I’m always going to be that Yankee who moved here when I was eight. It's a funny town. I just love it.
For more on the Lee brothers' interpretation of regional cuisine beyond Charleston, check out “The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern: Knockout Dishes with Downhome Flavor” and “The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook: Stories and Recipes for Southerners and Would-be Southerners,” which won the James Beard Award for Cookbook of the Year in 2007.