Talking Southern with the Lee Brothers

It all started with a pot of boiled peanuts in a tiny Manhattan apartment. Two James Beard Awards later, Matt and Ted Lee have become the go-to guys for Southern food- satisfying home cooks with both the comfort of grandma's fried chicken as well as fresh, updated southern recipes for modern living. During their trip to Tulsa, I was able to steal some time with this captivating duo to learn more about their career before a question and answer session at the Philbrook Museum of Art.

Though experts in their field, the Lee Brothers do not hail from deep Southern roots, rather they were born in New York. As young adolescents, their family moved to Charleston where the rich food culture created in them such strong ties to the South that it laid the foundation for their unforeseen journey into the food and travel world. After completing college and moving back to New York, a longing for southern delights such as boiled peanuts and fig preserves inspired Matt and Ted to track down and boil up a fifty-pound bag of raw peanuts. Although they identified an apparent niche, boiled peanuts did not become "the snack of the 90s" as they had hoped. Rather, this treat, curious to those unfamiliar, appealed to expatriate Southerners strewn across all parts of the country inspiring their mail-order catalog of southern pantry staples- The Lee Bros. Boiled Peanuts Catalogue.

The Lee Brothers said they couldn't see where they were headed when they started- and how could they? The catalog, with its hand-drawn illustrations, would lead to a travel piece and future contributing editors spot in Travel + Leisure, which further lead them to food writing and ultimately their first award-winning cookbook. 

It took Matt and Ted Lee a whopping six years to compile over two hundred recipes into the nearly six hundred pages that make up their first book, The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook. Originally a fraction of the size and lacking a traditional fried chicken recipe, the cooks went back into the test kitchen until they had created a masterpiece inspired by traditions stretching across the entire Southern region. Taking home two James Beard Awards, best in breed and best in show according to Matt, as well as two IACP awards, their hard work paid off. From punches to pickles, Southern Cookbook is packed with both updated classics and lesser known treats, such as pickled peach fruit salad gelée, all set amongst fascinating stories that serve to make this more than a cookbook- it’s a southern experience in itself.
Their latest cookbook, The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern, gives southern food the facelift it so much deserved. True to its title, this book is packed with easy to put together recipes featuring beautiful, fresh ingredients. “Fresh” also describes the Lee Brothers’ updated perspective on the cuisine, still emphasizing a key attribute of southern cooking- resourcefulness. While helping in the kitchen, Matt and Ted learned make do with what was available; they recount a memory of one of their influences, described as an old southern sage, using yogurt in her biscuits because she was out of buttermilk. Though unappealing to the eye, they made for the most delicious biscuits she had had in her many years.
Between their two books, the influences behind both their southern food education and delicious recipes are well illustrated. While speaking with the chefs, I got to hear more about the cookbook writing process itself. A true collaboration between the brothers, they follow their nose, whether it’s playing around with the shad roe that’s in season or a recipe from an old cookbook that tickles their fancy. In the test kitchen, they hash out recipes and exchange drafts, deciding whether they will take a traditional or updated approach. After investing plenty of time in developing the recipe, Matt and Ted say the delightful stories throughout the book come easily, the brother with the most relevant and entertaining anecdote writing the headnote.
Though Ted’s English degree has obvious benefits, I was interested how Matt’s studies in art history influenced his food writing. Both focusing on aesthetics, he found the two arenas actually quite similar. Having had to dissect over dozens of pages works of art most of us would find difficult to give a dozen words, Matt found food writing easy in comparison. The challenge with food writing, he describes, is fitting a surreal experience into the limited word count required by the magazine and newspaper world. Also credited with influencing their writing is their mother. A school headmistress, she was constantly mapping connections and histories amongst her pupils, a skill the Lee Brothers apply when connecting food to interesting characters and local history.

Avid collectors of American cookbooks, the brothers turned me onto a local gem that has been hiding right under my nose, Cleora’s Kitchen. This cookbook has everything they look for- a sense of place, personality and history. In fact, they tell me that this book was the first in the genre of autobiographical cookbooks and it all took place right here in Oklahoma!

For those interested in pursuing a career in the travel or culinary world, the Lee Brothers advise following your passion and developing it as fully as possible- with a little fine tuning it just might lead to something. Finding that they have worked backwards to reach their current destination, they learned that there is no set path leading to a particular career. Neither trained cooks nor entrepreneurs, their story inspires you to follow that itch.

In the works is their third book, The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen, projected for October 2012.  Chronicling growing up in the city’s rich culture with its strong connections to food, the reader will get both a taste for its contemporary scene as well as its past as they bring to life untold Charleston stories with reinvented recipes. Also of note is their line of cookware offered through HSN debuted this spring. The Lee Brothers take their career day by day but express hopes of making a bigger presence in the TV realm; they excite that their career has no expiration date- they can cook, eat, and write about food and travel until they die!

Next month, the International Association of Culinary Professionals will announce its awards, for which Simple Fresh Southern is nominated. While Ted will celebrate in Austin, Matt will be unable to attend though they both agree they can let someone else win this time. Unable to attend in 2007, the brothers remember dining at the Five & Ten restaurant in Athens, Georgia when they received the call that Southern Cookbook had taken home two awards.

If you're looking to have an inspiring food experience while in Charleston, the Lee Brothers advise you to experience their city at both ends of the spectrum- rural and urban, high and low. Seek out not just local restaurants but also interesting producers. They suggest visiting Bowens Island where oysters provide a far from luxury experience that is wonderful in its own right. For a more refined dining experience they suggest Hominy Grill or McCrady’s, which takes an inventive approach to southern cuisine.
From Simple Fresh Southern: Creamy Asparagus Soup with Grilled Asparagus, Radish Butter, Curried New Potato Salad, and Cabbage and Lime Salad with Roasted Peanuts
If you are not able to visit the south for an authentic experience, you can always pour over the pages of Southern Cookbook and Simple Fresh Southern and picture yourself transported to a place where food is central and as much a part of history as the people making it. Try your hand at some of their recipes and you will find not only the tastes and smells but also the warmth of the south itself infusing into your kitchen.


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