A couple of homesick brethren helped put Lowcountry cuisine on the map. Dan Gilbert relishes the cheery philosophies of the Brothers Lee.
After spending more than an hour in tangent-filled conversation with Ted Lee, one half of the dynamic duo who founded the Boiled Peanuts Catalogue, I not only want to try all of the Lee Brothers’ recipes…I also want to be their best friends.
What started as a small mail-order business has expanded to include food and travel writing as well as a hat trick of cookbooks that have garnered multiple James Beard Foundation awards. Their three tomes combine the charm of Southern storytelling with outstanding recipes.
You’ll find the gregarious brothers dispensing their unique blend of kitchen wisdom at the inaugural Savannah Food & Wine Festival, Nov. 11 – 17. Make sure you carve out some time for a good long chat.
What possessed you to start a boiled peanuts catalog as your first business venture?
Well, we started off, oddly enough, in New York and just being homesick for boiled peanuts. We were like, “Why can’t we get boiled peanuts here in New York where everything is available?” So we boiled them up in our apartment, and we thought, “This is so cool! We can make this taste travel.” We originally thought that we would sell them in restaurants in New York, that they would take over the world and we would be the boiled peanut magnates. Obviously that didn’t work, and we realized we’d have to sell them by mail order to people who already knew what they were.
You now have three successful cookbooks. How did that all come about?
The first one, The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, started off small, but our editor realized that there hadn’t been a definitive Southern cookbook in a long time, so she told us to add 125 more recipes and make it a 600-page magnum opus. It took another 3 years! But she was right. We basically became the guys who write about Southern food. Our newest cookbook, Charleston Kitchen, is more personal. It’s more about our experience of growing up in Charleston and how we were so influenced by the food there. Lots of stories.
How easy or difficult is it to run a business with your brother?
There’s a real advantage to there being two of us. It’s great to have a buddy in this. There can be a lot of loneliness in the world of freelance, but we get to share that! We were very different people growing up, but we’ve developed a great working relationship. It’s almost like being a writer and having an in-house editor right there with you.
Is there any place you’ve traveled to where you saw cuisine similar to the Lowcountry in an unexpected place?
The boiled peanuts in Hawaii were kind of a revelation. Boiled peanuts are originally from Asia, and so many Chinese immigrants came over to Hawaii to work on the sugar plantations. They serve boiled peanuts cooked to a snappier texture and with star anise. You find them all over Hawaii, sold on the side of the road, just like here! You’ll even find bags of raw peanuts sold next to star anise at farmer’s markets.
How about a place you’ve traveled that really influenced your recipes and cooking?
I had a “blown-out-of-the-water” revelation in eastern Kentucky because of how many people eat fresh food. The clarity of the vegetables was so pure. The bean varieties were totally amazing, and the biodiversity there is insane. I was expecting fried chicken and country ham, which is definitely a part of it, but you can be a really strict vegetarian there and eat really well, because it’s actually all about the vegetables. It came from people living really close to the land in a really genuine way because there was no other option.
Can you give me the three most essential Southern ingredients?
Oh gosh – it’s so hard to choose just three! But let’s talk staples. I’d say stone ground grits, sorghum syrup, and a really good, unique relish, like Jerusalem artichoke relish. Sorghum syrup is amazing. It has a more nuanced flavor than molasses. It’s tastes like caramel, but with this other flavor—I know this is going to sound crazy—that is almost tomato-like. You can get all wine-geek about sorghum syrup. We substitute sorghum syrup for the corn syrup in our pecan pie, and it makes such a better pie.
Do you have a favorite recipe that you’ve published?
I like recipes that feed a lot of people and are easy to make. In Charleston Kitchen, the fresh ham is fantastic. That’s something that’s really fun to roll out for company, because it’s majestic. And I love our Huguenot Torte for dessert, which is Charleston’s most iconic dessert. It’s simple…almost like a dumpster poured into the pan and baked.
Is there a chef or restaurant you’ve been particularly influenced by?
There’s a woman in Charleston named Martha Lou Gadsden who runs a place called Martha Lou’s. She was an inspiration to us growing up. She just serves really great old-school Southern food – you know, collard greens, lima beans, smothered pork chops, fried whiting on grits. We didn’t have any Southern grandmothers, so we always said that Martha Lou was our Southern grandmother. It’s amazing how many chefs have come to her place and had their minds blown by something as simple as lima beans.
What’s the best thing about Southern food right now?
You used to have a divide between what was happening in the high end and what was happening in the vernacular, but there’s no difference anymore. It’s not perceived as two different things—it’s all exalted cooking. It’s just two different styles. It’s not high vs. low; it’s simple vs. baroque.
What’s your take on the changes that have been sweeping the Lowcountry lately?
I think the Lowcountry is changing in really exciting ways, especially in the world of food. The restaurant culture is becoming so much more pluralistic. And at the same time, the places that are totally authentic and doing local stuff are not disappearing. For instance, you can still go to Bowen’s Island for a completely authentic lowcountry oyster roast. It’s exciting to see that as newer food experiences are coming in, the old places are benefiting. The rising tide lifts all boats.