You’d think that if anyone knew anything about Charleston’s cuisine and food history, it would be the Lee brothers.
Award-winning cookbook authors Ted and Matt Lee have claimed that Southern port city as their hometown since the ages of 8 and 10. After moving to the Northeast for college and work, they launched their mail order business, the Lee Bros. Boiled Peanut Catalogue, because they missed such foods from home as sorghum, grits and, of course, boiled peanuts.
And they have celebrated Southern food in their two previous award-winning cookbooks, “The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook,” and “The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern.”
But they discovered plenty of things they never knew about their hometown while researching their latest cookbook, “The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen.”
Who knew, for instance, that the country’s most famous community cookbook, “Charleston Receipts,” had an earlier version from the Charleston Junior League?
“Charleston Receipts,” published in 1950, received major write-ups in the New York Herald Tribune, National Geographic and Harper’s Bazaar. New York department store B. Altman and Co. even made it the centerpiece of a huge window display featuring Spanish moss, wrought-iron gates, sweetgrass baskets and many copies of the book.
Two years earlier, two junior members of the Charleston Junior League had written a red-covered volume called “Charleston Recipes.” People interviewed by the Lee brothers suspect the little-known collection was so successful that it caught the attention of more senior League members and led to the later volume.
The brothers learned about the earlier book while interviewing the daughter of one of the authors of “Charleston Receipts.” She had a copy of the earlier volume in her collection of Charleston cookbooks.
“I think it was like a trial balloon,” Matt Lee, 43, said in a phone interview with his brother, Ted, 41. “It’s part of the story that hasn’t been aired much recently.”
To promote their new cookbook, the pair will travel all over the South in the next month, including stops in Concord and at Park Road Books in Charlotte.
In our interview, the brothers shared more of their new discoveries about Charleston – discoveries highlighted in essays sprinkled throughout their new book.
For one, Matt Lee said, it took him a while to understand why chicken and seafood were more prevalent in Charleston kitchens than beef or pork.
“The extent to which seafood and poultry are the defining proteins – I hadn’t really wrapped my brain around that,” he said.
But now it makes sense to him. The city is surrounded by water. Cattle and pigs weren’t raised there. Instead, he said, people ate “the birds flying overhead, yardbirds (aka chickens) and what could be pulled out of the water.”
Ted Lee said they also learned the history behind Backman Seafood, a roadside seafood store on nearby James Island. In the 1960s, the owner was a widow named Susie Backman, a black woman who owned three 45-foot-long trawlers (one was named Scotch & Soda) and ran a thriving shrimping business. She was profiled in a 1965 issue of Ebony magazine in an article titled “Queen of Shrimpers.”
A photo of a stylish Backman appears in the cookbook: She’s wearing cat-eyed sunglasses, and her bejeweled fingers are fixing a fishing net.
And then there are the dishes no longer being served in Charleston restaurants or homes that the brothers discovered in old cookbooks.
One was a dessert called syllabub, a wine-infused whipped cream popular in the 1800s; peach leather, which vanished a generation ago from Charleston kitchens; and deep-fried salsify “oysters,” a cousin of carrot that was a common crop in the mid-1800s.
About these revelations, Ted Lee said: “We’re constantly discovering more about a place we thought we knew well.”
To see a printable version of the recipe, click on the name below: