If there's anything the world didn't seem to need, it was another Southern cookbook. Grits, buttermilk biscuits, country ham, sweet potatoes — we get it. But the Lee Brothers, Matt and Ted, think there's something new to say, mainly because there are new things to use.
"The spirit of resourcefulness, using the ingredients you've got, has always been part of Southern cuisine," Ted says in a recent phone interview. "People always say, 'Don't mess with Grandma's recipes.' But it's very likely that she messed around with other people's recipes to get hers. There's no reason to put Southern food in a museum."
The Lees will be at the Beauty Shop restaurant on Friday, May 4th, signing The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook: Stories and Recipes for Southerners and Would-be Southerners (W.W. Norton). But what's new enough to merit yet another Southern cookbook? It's simple, Ted says: We have access to ingredients that Grandma didn't.
"Consider fresh tarragon," Ted says. "Back in the 1980s, you couldn't find it anywhere, but now it grows like heck in Southern gardens. And it's great with crab. Smoked paprika is another one. It's made in Spain and just in the last few years become available across America. It adds so much smoky flavor, which is key because we all have vegetarian friends who want to eat tasty collard greens but can't eat a smoked pig's foot."
The Lee Brothers would seem the perfect tour guides in this new world — although Ted admits his culinary training consists of "maybe one knife-handling class." Nor did they grow up writing. Ted and Matt arrived at their first cookbook after a trip that started with a bout of homesickness.
They were born in New York, but the family moved to Charleston, South Carolina, when Ted was 8 and Matt was 10. They were immediately taken with Southern cooking, especially the direct connection between people and their food. Ted remembers learning how to tie a string around a chicken neck to go crabbing, exclaiming to his new friends, "Whoa — you catch your own food?!"
After college, the Lees resettled in New York and took "dead-end jobs." They missed the food, specifically boiled peanuts, and during what Ted calls "the dark winter of 1994," they decided to cook some up. Then they decided to sell what they presumed, in a fine bout of 20-ish male grandiose thinking, would be "the snack of the '90s."
But all the trendy "Southern" restaurants in New York at the time were owned, Ted says, "by guys from Long Island." Still, Southern ex-pats in the city were interested, and a business was started in the brothers' tenement apartment. Again thinking big, they sent a batch of the peanuts to a New York Times food writer, who hated them but whose husband, from Virginia, vouched for them. She put a few words in the Times, and 100 orders came in that day.
A few days later, the Lees made plans to go back to Charleston and make a go of it. Thus was born the Lee Brothers Boiled Peanut Catalog (boiledpeanuts.com), which soon came to include baked goods, preserves, pickles and relishes, sorghum, country ham ... basically everything former Southerners need to stay in touch. The site won awards, which led to writing assignments, and here we are: two guys hip to the restaurant scene, cooking trends, food writing, and old-style Southern cooking. Ted even says things like "Allan Benton's is the country ham everybody's groovin' on right now."
"We are obsessed with authentic Southern recipes," Ted says, "especially the ones from those community cookbooks. Part of me understands the impulse not to change these things. But at the same time, there's all these new ingredients, so let's use them."
The book ranges from "super-traditional recipes" like fried chicken with ultra-thin crust all the way to the "kid-playing-with-the-chemistry-set" stuff like chocolate grits ice cream, which was inspired by a French chef in New York who hardly knew what grits were but made a chocolate soufflé with them. "That one really gets the traditionalist's hackles up," Ted says.
But this is not a novelty book; there's no "country-ham cotton candy," Ted says. Instead, for example, the brothers took inspiration from the famous buttermilk pie at the Hominy Grill in Charleston and created a sweet-potato buttermilk pie. They separate the eggs, whip the whites, and fold them back into the batter; that, plus a little buttermilk in the puréed potatoes gives it what Ted calls "a chiffon-like texture with a sweet-potato cheesecake flavor."
"We make this thing for grandmas all over the country," Ted says, "and they don't say, 'What have you done to my pie recipe?'"
The Lees won't be cooking in Memphis, but they will be signing their book, and Beauty Shop owner Karen Carrier is putting on a prix fixe menu of dishes from the book, including butter-bean pâté; cold rice salad with country ham, English peas, and fresh mint; pan-fried soft-shell crab wrapped in prosciutto and sage with chow chow and muddled horseradish blueberry sauce; and fig preserve and walnut cake ... and, of course, boiled peanuts.
Matt and Ted Lee will sign their book at the Beauty Shop on Friday, May 4th, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Dinner will follow the signing. The prix fixe menu is $55 with wine pairings, $40 without. Diners can also order from the à la carte menu.