Savannah Morning News, 27 Oct 2013
Being homesick stinks.
Missing familiar sites, people, places, and local cuisine can drive a person to be downright sad. But Matt and Ted Lee, better known as The Lee Brothers, turned their homesick feelings into a thriving business focused on foods from their hometown of Charleston, S.C. The mail order food catalog, launched in 1994, was aptly named “Boiled Peanuts” and was the catalyst that led these Southern siblings to their current roles of award-winning cookbook writers and celebrity chefs.
“In college things began to converge. I studied art history and Ted studied English. We were just out of college and living in New York trying to make ends meet. We thought boiled peanuts would be a hit in bars in New York. We even secured boiledpeanuts.com.”
While the moist snack didn’t take off in New York, other homesick Southerners like the Lee brothers could order the treat as well as a host of other Southern goodies from the Lee Bros. Boiled Peanuts catalogue to get a taste of home.
Canned boiled peanuts are even on the list, but are those as good as the real thing?
“No, they are not,” Matt explains. “But they aren’t bad. We are purists so we boil our peanuts in salt and water with no extras.
“We learned early on that our customers wanted the can variety — there is an interest in it and nostalgia in it. They sell almost as well as fresh ones and we make them in Charleston.”
The brothers also sell green peanuts with kits to make your own at home, but the cans offer an alternative to shipping overseas and APO addresses.
“They are not bad — they are not the same as fresh but they hit the spot.”
Spreading their wings
While the nuts didn’t become the latest craze up north, they did help launch the brothers into the world of food and travel writing.
“After the catalogue came out, we were put in touch with editor of Travel and Leisure and in 2000 they gave us our first assignment to write about the South,” Matt says.
“We found we loved that experience … and being able to write about it and share with an audience. We began writing for other magazines and The New York Times, and then people expected us to write recipes and it got us into the test kitchen. We loved that challenge because it uses a more scientific part of the brain.”
That challenge led to their first cookbook, “The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook” which debuted in 2007 and earned two James Beard Awards for Best American Cookbook and Cookbook of the Year. So, where can you go from there?
“It’s only down from there. Down, down, down,” Matt says with a laugh.
“Actually, it was quite the splashy intro to the New York publishing world, and it opened more doors for us.”
Their second book, “The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern” came out in 2009 and the brothers recently released “The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen,” which focuses on the cuisine and the food culture of their hometown.
Exploring Charleston kitchens
It’s not your typical cookbook either. The book is filled with recipes and the history behind the food through colorful stories and includes two maps – a walking tour and a driving tour to match locations with the recipes.
“We wanted the Charleston book to not only reflect the city but give you the feel of it,” Matt says. “We wanted readers to feel the kind of emotions and the sights, smells, the interconnecting looping of the rich cultural immersions into the city.
“So many recipes could be tied to specific addresses, so we thought it would be fun to map it out.”
But how do two minds create one book?
“We’re different people but very complimentary,” Matt explains. “We have a shared body of knowledge and similar tastes. We divvy it up. … We try to research everything together and then work on the writing separately and then come back together … for mutual editing.
“During the recipe developing process, we are out researching and going out so we have inspiration to work on the framework of the story.”
And Matt says that while his focus is on his hometown, he keeps an eye on the Savannah food scene, too.
“We check in every couple of years,” he says. “In 2006 we wrote about Savannah in Food and Wine (Magazine) and we have been back a few times since.
“We noticed every time we go back something changes. We love how connected Savannah is to the sea. It has all the fundamentals for a terrific Southern food town … but tourism throws a wrench into the food scene.
“It’s a hard balance to weigh what tourists expect and what the natives are grooving on. I think it’s important to cater to tourists first because there is a flood of them and they exist in greater proportions.”
Cooking in Savannah
And The Lee Brothers plan to make their way back to Savannah for the Savannah Food & Wine Festival on Nov. 11-17. Matt says they are familiar with the food and wine festival scene, but find the Southern festivals offer something unique.
“They all seem to have the same hospitality quotient, but what’s cool about the southern ones are that they are drawing on local talent.
“Southern festivals stake a claim on Southern flavor… You find a lot of Southern chefs are very much in demand because they bring a lot of spice, soul, and stories. What you get at a Southern festival is a lot of that.”
If you want to hear The Lee Brothers spin some yarns of their own, they are hosting a cooking class and demonstration during the festival at the Mansion on Forsyth Park cooking school on Nov. 15 from 1:30-3:30 p.m.
“We love to do cooking demos,” Matt says. “It’s our favorite performance. Nowadays, food TV has gotten so far away from demonstrating dishes. It’s kind of boring. The general audience is craving that.
“Watching someone slaving at the stove makes it interesting. You also get the stories, the smells, and you get to ask questions — it trumps anything on TV.”
The brothers will also moderate a panel of celebrity guest chefs including Chris Hastings, Anthony Lamas and Shaun Doty at the Learning Tent in Ellis Square at the festival’s Taste of Savannah event on Nov. 16 from 1-2 p.m. The title of the panel is “Local Sustainability and Sourcing” — a topic very close to the brothers’ hearts.
“Sometimes we forget how lucky people in the Lowcountry are to have fresh seafood right off the boat, especially shrimp,” Matt says. “That is a rarity these days. If you are lucky, you can time it right and that’s a wonderful trick for visitors from out of town to take them right out to the boat and sift through the fresh catch.”
And fresh seafood is not the only local source Matt thinks is important to the Lowcountry.
“We are strong defenders in country wines,” Matt explains. “People turn their noses up to it but we feel they have a wonderful place. Nothing beats checking on all our friends who make wines. It’s fun to see what people do and make from their fruits.”
Matt proudly admits he enjoys a nice chilled strawberry wine and says he and Ted are very excited to represent the Lowcountry at the festival.
“We feel like Savannah doesn’t get enough credit, even from people from Savannah,” he explains. “It has all the fundamentals of a fun food town. We’re excited to see what comes of it. We are so impressed by what is being offered at the festival and we hope it brings great joy and energy to the local food world.”