Genteel Charleston is a small Southern seaside city known not just for its turbulent history, vibrant arts scene and quirky culture, but also for a luscious cuisine that respects the past while not afraid to innovate it. Years ago I recall wandering for hours with my two small kids in their double stroller along Charleston’s streets lined with rainbow-hued rowhouses and Antebellum mansions, by gardens rimmed with magnolias and live oaks spun with Spanish moss. We ran in the sand on its little island beaches flecked with seabirds and steeped in ancient cultures. But I fell hardest in love with its food – at oyster shacks, in places like Hank’s seafood restaurant and Hominy Grill. Since then I order Carolina grits and rice online; I cook with greens or okra or crab every chance I get, trying to recapture it all somehow.
Fortunately, cookbook authors Matt Lee and Ted Lee are bringing the soul – and the food – of Charleston to Rhinebeck. With two appearances on Saturday, June 8 – at the Country Living Fair at the Dutchess County Fairgrounds and at Bluecashew Kitchen Pharmacy in Rhinebeck – the Lee brothers, who also founded the Lee Bros. Boiled Peanut Company, will bring us Hudson Valley folk some tastes of South Carolina classics like the iconic Lowcountry dish shrimp and grits and a peppery cheese spread à la Henry’s from a mid-20th-century brasserie.
The multiple-award-winning brothers Lee grew up in the Southern city and soaked up its unique foodways along the way. In their new book The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen (Clarkson Potter), they follow home cooks past and present, a shrimp boat captain, farmers, chefs, eccentrics and even funeral directors in search of dishes – a hundred of them, plus 75 photographs and driving and walking maps.
“In our new book we return to the place where we grew up, the place we know best,” Ted Lee told me, “to tell stories about the people who cultivate, catch and cook food in Charleston and who make our cooking lives here so enjoyable.”
The book begins with preparations for an oyster roast, a common Lowcountry event as ubiquitous as our community chicken barbecues. As they go on, they collect stories, tales and examples of Charleston’s spirit. The Lee brothers are not ashamed to show us how to cook green beans much longer than is fashionable, and with swine, and why. They offer the classic sesame biscuits called benne wafers in both sweet and savory versions.
They give us Lowcountry Gumbo, She-Crab Soup, Hoppin’ John (a classic black-eyed pea dish), Deviled Crab, Pan-Roasted Okra, Corn and Tomatoes, Fried Chicken with Fried Chicken Gravy and Huguenot Torte; but you’ll also find intriguing Muscadine Sangria, Lowcountry Limoncello, Shrimp Popovers, Pickled Shrimp with Fennel, Butterbeans with Butter, Mint and Lime, Cornmeal-Crusted Mahi with Jerusalem Artichoke Tartar Sauce and Mulberry-Glazed Venison Loin, to follow with sweets like Grapefruit Chess Pie or Syllabub with Rosemary-Glazed Figs.
“We’ve been collaborating as food and travel journalists and cookbook authors for almost 15 years now,” Ted Lee told me. I recall their entertaining pieces in The New York Times back then, and they’ve since become contributing editors for Travel & Leisure magazine. Their first cookbook was The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook (W. W. Norton, 2006), which not only got a spot on many “Best Book” lists, but also won James Beard Awards for Cookbook of the Year and Cooking of the Americas, plus the American Cooking and Julia Child awards from the International Association of Culinary Professionals. “It highlighted the diversity of Southern cooking from region to region: how differently people eat from place to place as you travel around the South,” explained Ted.
They followed that book in 2009 with The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern (Clarkson Potter). “In that one, we shared our favorite family recipes for easy weeknight meals with loads of Southern flavor.”
Asked how the two brothers collaborate, Ted explained, “As far as the writing goes, we’re both writers and we’re both editors, so whatever the project – whether it’s the head notes for the recipes in a cookbook or a travel story about eating around the North Fork of Long Island – one of us will begin writing, and when we get to a point where we need input, we pass off the manuscript to the other brother, who will edit what’s there and then continue writing. We may pass the manuscript back and forth many times before we’ve settled on a first draft.
“When we’re developing the recipes themselves, however, we tend to be more strictly collaborative, in the sense that we’re both working on the recipes in the same kitchen in real time. When we’re in the test kitchen, it’s really important for us to work together meticulously and methodically. We both have our laptops open, recording everything that we’re doing in real time, with particular attention paid to time, to measurements. In the test kitchen, it’s just us and our assistant, because we can’t afford to be distracted by anything!”
Ted said that he and his brother are excited about the upcoming events in Rhinebeck. Not only is their father’s family from the Yorktown Heights area, he added, but Matt and his family also escape Charleston’s summer heat and humidity by spending summers at their house in Coxsackie.
The Lee brothers’ Rhinebeck visit begins with cooking demonstrations at the three-day Country Living Fair from June 7 to 9 at the Dutchess County Fairgrounds on Route 9. The festival will offer seminars, antiques, art, artisan demonstrations and home décor. At 3 p.m. on Saturday, June 8, Matt Lee and Ted Lee will prepare three dishes from The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen, followed by a book-signing at 4 p.m. Then they’re off to bluecashew at 6423 Montgomery Street, also in Rhinebeck, from 5 to 7 p.m., where they will sign books and serve boiled peanuts, the classic Southern treat for which they are also famous (www.boiledpeanuts.com), plus Henry’s Cheese Spread, with cocktails from Creme Yvette.
For more information on the Country Living Fair, see www.stellashows.com; on bluecashew Kitchen Pharmacy see www.bluecashewkitchen.com; and on Matt Lee and Ted Lee at https://mattleeandtedlee.com/lee-bros. Read more about local cuisine and learn about new restaurants on Ulster Publishing’s dinehudsonvalley.com or hudsonvalleyalmanacweekly.com.