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The Lee Brothers on Their New Cookbook, Charleston, and Southern Food

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Photo: Squire Fox / Clarkson Potter

The Lee Brothers — that's Matt and Ted — tell Eater that their third cookbook is the one they intended to write from the beginning. Since 2006, the Charleston natives have written two pan-Southern cookbooks, but The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen is the first one that focuses on the food of their home town. The Lees dug deep for this one: texts from as early as 1774 informed the book, and they interviewed everyone from the children of Junior League cookbook authors (Charleston Receipts is perhaps the most famous Junior League cookbook ever printed) to the lawyers of shrimp boat captains. Below, Matt Lee and Ted Lee talk Southern food, their new cookbook-writing boot camp for chefs, and how Charleston is just getting started. The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen comes out February 26 from Clarkson Potter; check out a preview of the book.

Your first two books were more about Southern cuisine as a whole. Why focus on Charleston for this book?
Ted Lee: Our first book, [The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook], was all about highlighting the diversity of Southern cooking. We were really intent in getting across the message that people eat differently from place to place in the South. So you can't just talk about Southern food, you need to talk about the food of the Appalachians, the food of New Orleans, the food of Texas, the Lowcountry. It was all about getting that point across, that Southern cuisine is a regional cuisine. And our second book, [The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern], was really an interpretation of Southern food, fresh, seasonal, weeknight cooking.

This was the book where we finally got to go deep on Charleston. It's something that we wanted to do in the first book, looking back on it, we intended to basically write a Charleston book. Our editor had said, if you really want to do a great Charleston cookbook, you should do a pan-Southern cookbook first and go large, and then you can go back to Charleston. But if you do Charleston first? You know, it's funny, because it was a strategy that added four years, basically, to the production of this cookbook. But I think she was right, I think this is the right time for us to be doing this book. It's all about how we grew up, and how we grew up made us the food lovers we are today.

Matt Lee: It's also convenient because in that time, back in 2004 I think we turned in the first draft of that and got our marching orders, in those ten years Charleston has come to such a higher level of awareness.

Ted Lee: Largely through its restaurants. And our parents' generation of Charleston residents, natives, and cooks, it's time now to tell those tales. They're still around, they're walking and talking and driving cars, but now is the time to interview them about 20th century Charleston traditions, of the home cooking variety.

There is this exciting, dynamic restaurant culture that's white hot right now, but it has its roots in the home cooking of the region and we wanted to give some context to the restaurant stuff from a home cook's perspective, because from a home cook's perspective Charleston has always had an amazing food culture. And the major cookbooks of the period, of the 19th century and the 20th century, bear that out. A lot of the current chefs, like Robert Stehling and Sean Brock, they're always tipping their hats to those books. So it's nice to sort of put some meat on them bones.

Tell me a little about those old cookbooks. It seems like most of the recipes in the book reference one cookbook or another.
Matt: The first one we have to call out is what we're calling the definitive 20th century Charleston cookbook, which is Junior League icon Charleston Receipts, published in 1950. It's sort of a map of Charleston's 20th century food history at that point. And it's huge in volume, 440 plus recipes, it has a lot of information about Charleston in it that's very dated looking back on it now. You have to understand it in its context. But it calls out the names of all of these different people in the community who contributed. It's really an interesting read just to see what kinds of ingredients were in circulation then, what kinds of preparation were still common. It has variety and breadth that a lot of community cookbooks don't. So that's where we go to get a bead on the 20th century.

We have drawn on many others, including a hand-written book that we found in the archives of Middleton Place Book Foundation. It dates about 1774, so a little bit before the revolution. It was written by a woman, Henrietta Drayton, whose family — she was a Middleton, she married the Draytons next door and grew up in Drayton Hall Plantation. We were actually searching for Edna Lewis material from the 1980s when we stumbled on this. And what's interesting about the manuscript is that first of all, it's legible and cookable. I can't say that about many cookbooks today. It's beautifully written, it's mostly pastries and baked goods sections, there's also some chicken soup and things. But what struck us was the beautifully simple macaroons recipe, which was seasoned with orange flower water. First of all, later in the ice box chapter, there are all these churn-less freezer desserts that you half freeze and then you stir them to break up the matrix, and then you freeze them again, and then you partially freeze it and you stir it, it's sort of a primitive way of making ice cream without an ice cream churn. And without a custard, the base is whipped cream. Anyhow a lot of those popular ice box desserts from the 20th century involve macaroons, crumbled macaroons. For whatever reason. So we were looking for a macaroons recipe anyhow, this one's cool because it's orange flower water, and it's publishable in this day and age thanks to mixology because now we can select from which brand of orange flower water we want at a typical grocery store.

We tried to draw connections between the new and the old. So many books that have come out of Charleston have looked lovingly at one period and have tended to ignore recent history, and so we wanted to embrace it all. We had a little extra time to work on the book, we've never released one into the Spring. So with that extra time we were able to create what we think is probably the most complete Charleston food book bibliography ever assembled, which is in the back of the book. That's an interesting read. We decided to organize it chronologically. I'm sure there are some great things that are missing from it, but we got some pretty esoteric and cool stuff. And the last book in there, the most recent one, is a cookbook by Frank McMahon about Hank's restaurant, it came out last year, photographed by Frank Edwards.

So the end result in terms of recipes is a mix of both updated versions of older dishes as well as newer ones?
Ted: Yeah. We wanted to contend with the Charleston icons in some way, whether presenting them in an archaeological sense, or more interpretive, or just crazy riffing on Charleston ingredients.

Matt: I would also say that in a lot of the revival recipes we do, like the salsify oysters — imagine something almost like a falafel, but with salsify — the original recipe is genius but so under-seasoned. It was very sketchily written, but we updated it with more seasoning, things that bring out the flavor of the salsify. Writing recipes that anyone can understand is our mission.

Ted: The rice croquettes, also, that was another one where you go to the 19th century recipes and they're so under-seasoned. It's just like milk, and egg, and not even salt and pepper. So we took liberties like adding some country ham.

Matt: You know, it may be that it was assumed that you would season to taste, but in this day and age you have to season to taste. If you want them to season with salt and pepper, you had to put salt and pepper in the ingredients list. We err more on the side of holding hands with our readers than maybe other people do.

I don't think there's anything wrong with that.
Matt: Yeah, I mean you can ignore it if you're a seasoned chef, but our goal is to get as many people as possible cooking Southern food as possible, so if that's your goal you want to reach out to curious people who need that level of attention.

The book also references interviews with people, as you put it, from your parents' generation. Who did you talk to for this book?
Matt: We sat down with one gentleman, the current owner of Backman Market, Thomas Backman, Jr. He is, I'd say, my parents' age, in his 60s. And I was interviewing him sitting on a pile of green netting, he was cutting out the turtle excluder devices. He owns a fish store, a retail store, but also a trawler that's docked right there in a community that's just ten or fifteen minutes outside of downtown Charleston. He was just describing the state of the shrimping industry. He remembers in the middle of the 1960s when his mother had three trawlers and was pulling in $1,000 plus per week — that's n 1965 dollars — and there were 300 plus competitors working the South Carolina coast. There were plenty of shrimp to go around. Now there are fewer, there are like a third of that. And the shrimp are all gone. And his children are all choosing other methods of employment. A fish retail store is now one of the great sources for local fish, for the fish that come out of the creeks right there. The croaker, the whiting, the flounder, the shark, the oysters, the shellfish, the shrimp. Also he's from the African American community in Charleston, that perspective has been largely ignored in past cookbooks, or suppressed in some fashion.

Another great interview was the lawyer for another shrimp boat captain, the Magwoods in Mount Pleasant, on the other side of the harbor. And the lawyer, Andrew Savage, was describing the father, the late owner of this current shrimping enterprise. He was legendary in town and so we interviewed people in his world, around him, who could fill in some of this picture of Junior Magwood. Captain Junior Magwood, just an epic figure, the dirtiest mouth, just a salty creature if there ever was one. So the lawyer described having to occasionally go out in a boat into the harbor to diffuse some standoff between him and the wildlife authorities on many occasions. Charlestonians have a sense of humor about a lot of stuff, and especially about food.

We had a really great time with the woman whose mother created Charleston Receipts, around the mahogany dining room table where all the receipts came together and were compiled and tested and put into publishing form. The family kept meticulous scrapbooks from 1950 when it was published to the present. That was just a trove and an interesting source of tidbits for us. In that search we found out that [food writer] Clementine Paddleford came to Charleston and had an epic journey and visit here.

What's so cool about Charleston being such a well positioned, cosmopolitan port town, is that its history and certainly its food history is just continuous. We are not more sophisticated today than we were ten years ago, 20 years ago, 110 years ago. It goes up and down and there are periods when the number of ingredients that were available here, the fruits and vegetables were even more diverse and plentiful than they are today. It's really interesting to go back and piece together what happened, to challenge that self-gratifying notion that we get more and more sophisticated as time goes on.

What do you think is constant in Charleston's cuisine, through all these ups and downs?
Ted: I would say the oyster roast, because that truly embraces even the Native American period in Charleston's history. Any newcomer landing on the non-stop from LaGuardia, land at an oyster roast and suddenly you're connected to that thread. It's about seafood, the shellfish and also the poultry. People ask us, bet y'all get crazy on the bacon, right? And it's like well, it's not really a pork or beef town. It's more about the birds and the fish. And going through those cookbooks reinforces that, there's precious little beef and pork. You work with what you got, it's not a ranching region. This ground is not good territory for raising livestock.

And then how would you describe the status of what's going on in Charleston now? I know there's a lot of buzz about people like Sean Brock, but what's happening that maybe the rest of the country isn't hearing about?
Ted: I think what's exciting about Charleston now for both visitors and locals is that there are places metabolizing the old ways into contemporary ways. You have a place like Husk that's really trying to process what were the ingredients in the 18th and 19th centuries, and how can we make them interesting today? How can we have them inform a fine dining setting? And then you have really casual places that are just doing great simple, fresh, Southern-style food, like the Glass Onion or the Hominy Grill, that are creative but not fine dining. It's just beautiful Southern food with contemporary flourishes. And then we have authentic pho for the first time. It's just a plurality of options that are available now, it's amazing. Even as opposed to five years ago. So you could come and really have an experience that feels authentically Charleston, or you could be surprised by a great Italian restaurant in an emerging neighborhood that feels like a discovery, like something new.

The history of restaurant dining in Charleston is fairly young. When we were growing up there were very few restaurants. Locals didn't go to many restaurants because they were filling up their quotas in the yacht club or just cooking at home. And if you did go out, you'd go to a French or an Italian place, because that's what was there, with a few exceptions. You'd have great, incredible soul food restaurants that have been in town for a long time. Or you had Henry's, which until the mid-80s was serving local seafood. It was almost a special occasion place in the sense that the waiters were wearing white dinner jackets.

Matt: It was modeled on a New Orleans place from the 1920s.

Ted: Yes, like a Galatoire's or a Commander's Palace. Even though it wasn't as formal as those places. But for Southern there was this destination restaurant, the old Edisto Hotel. People our parents' age with young kids would ditch the kids with a babysitter and go down to Edisto, it's like 45 minutes south. And it was like excellent fried seafood. People of a certain age just can't get over how there isn't a place like the Edisto Motel. They didn't take reservations, you would bomb down there in a minivan. And you could bring your own cooler while you waited on line —

Matt: No, no, no, no, no, they handed out beers to people. It was sort of on the honors system, you just went in and grabbed a beer from the cooler and then went back out and waited.

Ted: That's a lot like Mission Chinese today, heh.

You have recently launched a sort of Cookbook Boot Camp for chefs, in which chefs come to Charleston for a weekend and workshop a cookbook idea. How the first weekend go?
Matt: We had such a good time. It came about because we would have chefs come to us and say, how do I do this? I want to do this, I think I have it in me. But where do I start? And it is true, it's hard to know where to start. And it's hard to know where to get good advice. At the same time, we had friends we'd introduced to our agent eight years ago, but even then, even having an agent interested in the project, they didn't know how to carve out the time to create the documents that are going to push the project forward.

Ted: And that gets stacked against everyone in publishing, but especially against hardworking, independent chef-owners. The learning process alone is too time consuming, and the writing process is extremely time consuming, so we just felt like there's a public service aspect of it. Like let's help you at least get to square one, deciding whether you have it in you to do this. We lucked into a perfect set of participants because they came to it from so many different places, so many different skill sets. There were six of them, and the farthest one came in from San Francisco and the nearest one was Kevin Johnson from the Grocery in Charleston. And we could go around the room, if it had been eight or ten we wouldn't have really been able to workshop everyone's story.

Matt: One of the exercises we did was just how do you tell your story? Because chefs tend to be fairly poor editors of themselves. [Laughs] Not the worst in the world, but you know. So we started out with the writing assignment to tell us about your food in 100 words and you've got fifteen minutes. And so they took fifteen minutes and tried to describe what they did, and some were tied up with a bow and perfect and some were more stream of consciousness. Others I wish I had written them myself. And then we did, okay, now do the same thing in 25 words. And then the third wave we did: now do it in three words. They have to get comfortable editing it down.

Ted: And they all want to resist that, they all want to say, oh well I need to explain myself. And you're like, well, you don't have that opportunity.

Matt: It's a two minute TV show appearance, you don't have the time.

Ted: Or it's a busy editor who's reading a query letter and you don't have time to tell your whole story in the query letter, you have like two sentences. So we had fun going from that level of meta, how do you tell your story, to the more nuts and bolts. What does an author questionnaire look like, what can you expect? They were just filled with questions like, how much money am I going to make? They wanted numbers.

What do chefs have in hand when they come out of the boot camp?
Matt: At one point we got into some shrink-like conceptualizing with them. One chef said, I hate coming out of the kitchen and interacting with the customers. So we were like, okay, how does that play in a cookbook concept? How do we turn lemons into lemonade there? So we were like, are you religious at all? What's your relationship with your family like? And eventually the best we could do was, maybe think of this more like the tranquil chef. The kind of chef who just loves being in the kitchen, doesn't like the song and dance. You have to talk them through possible, viable ideas.

We were clear to them that they have to stand out from their peers. There are 20,000 cookbooks a year, you have to give novelty to your project in some fashion. Primarily, it's setting expectations, letting them know what industry standards are, what level of originality is out there. We brought in cases of books to use as samples and test cases and we talked through a lot with them and the plusses and minuses of different approaches.

Ted: And it's just two days, you can't really write a proposal in that time frame. So we handed out proposals that have worked. They had several examples of that. For the one student who had brought a proposal, we workshopped that proposal. We wanted to leave them with an outline of a proposal, and getting them comfortable with telling their story. The key to a proposal is tell that story immediately that draws the reader in in a way that feels natural. Think of that moment that will crystallize for the reader why they're reading the book. Who they are, what kind of people they are. You know, Matt and I, our first book, the first proposal, we told the story about throwing an oyster roast in the parking lot of a friend's restaurant in Louisville. And it was kind of scary, fish out of water situation. Here you are, in a town you don't know, and you just started a bonfire in a parking lot of a restaurant —

Matt: And it's not an oyster town.

Ted: And you have 250 people who bought tickets to your oyster roast. How's it going to go? Start a fire, basically, that was our advice. Start a fire.

· Cookbook Boot Camp [The Food Life]
· All Lee Bros. Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Cookbook Coverage on Eater [-E-]