The Lee brothers rediscover Charleston's food

aweigl@newsobserver.comMarch 5, 2013 

  • Meet the Lee brothers • 7 p.m. March 12, a book signing and reception at the Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St., Durham. • 4 p.m. March 13, a book signing at A Southern Season in Chapel Hill. (A 6 p.m. cooking class has sold out.) • 6 p.m. March 14, a Charleston dinner party at the Fearrington House with Matt and Ted Lee. Tickets are $125 for dinner, wine, tax, gratuity and an autographed copy of their new cookbook. For tickets, call 919-542-3030.

You’d think that if anyone knew anything about Charleston’s cuisine and food history that it would be the Lee brothers.

Award-winning cookbook authors Ted and Matt Lee have claimed this 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 a precursor 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 be in the Triangle next week for a series of book readings, a sold-out cooking class at A Southern Season in Chapel Hill and a dinner at the Fearrington House near Pittsboro.

Surprising revelations

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 a 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:

Syllabub with Rosemary-Glazed Figs

Syllabub with Rosemary-Glazed Figs The Lee brothers write that this is a simple, decadent dessert “came to Charleston with English settlers in 1700s, and was a fashionable dessert among well-to-do families in the Lowcountry until the early 20th century. ... In spite of that, we’ve never been served this dessert in Charleston – neither in a restaurant nor in a private home – not once! And we have no clue why: It’s as easy to make as whipped cream, beyond delicious, and a perfectly elegant accompaniment for fruit.” From “The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen,” by Matt Lee and Ted Lee (Clarkson Potter, 2013). 1/2 cup Sercial Madeira or Amontillado sherry Peel of 1/2 lemon 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice 1/2 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar, divided Kosher salt 1/4 cup water 1 cup heavy cream, cold 2 (3-inch) long sprigs rosemary 4 ounces fresh figs, about 4 large, stemmed and quartered

MAKE the syllabub: Put sherry, lemon peel, lemon juice, 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar and a pinch of kosher salt in a large bowl and whisk until the sugar is dissolved, about a minute. Let stand in the fridge, about 1 hour.

MAKE the rosemary-glazed figs: Heat remaining 1/2 cup sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Add the rosemary and a pinch of kosher salt, stir for 30 seconds to dissolve the sugar and bruise the rosemary, and turn off the heat. Cover and let cool to room temperature, about 20 minutes.

PUT figs in a small bowl, drizzle 2 to 3 tablespoons of the rosemary syrup over them, and toss gently to coat. (If the figs are less than ripe, let them stand in the syrup for 30 minutes to sweeten.) Reserve the remaining syrup for another use, such as sweetening lemonade.

REMOVE lemon peel from the wine mixture. Pour the cream into the wine and whisk by hand until the cream is thick and holds its shape, about 2 minutes. Divide the syllabub among four wine glasses or sundae cups and spoon the rosemary-glazed figs over each serving. Yield: 4 servings

Weigl: 919-829-4848

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