Today I’m thrilled to have two of my favorite cooks and writers, Matt Lee and Ted Lee, answer some burning questions here on Good. Food. Stories. The Lees, authors of The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook and Simple Fresh Southern (hey, we love three-word titles here), explore new variations on traditional Southern cuisine from Carolina BBQed pork shoulder and Lowcountry fruit preserves to pickled grapes and the brilliant shrimp and deviled-egg salad roll.
Even if you’ve never set foot in the South or popped a field pea into your mouth, the Lee brothers will win you over with their inspiring stories and drop-dead intense flavors. Oh, and they’ll find more uses for buttermilk than you ever thought possible.
(Ted and Matt are also proud holders of English and art history degrees, respectively, which makes this particular English-and-art history-degree-holder feel a little more validated about her particular career path.)
They’ve got a lot to say about why “Southern food” is a misleading catch-all term, how we should all be developing a taste for aspic, and what it’s like to work with your sibling. Grab a mint julep and read on.
Your career began with the idea of homesickness and providing people with specific regional foods that they couldn’t get “up north.” What’s the one item you can’t get or replicate in New York, where can you find it, and why do you love it so much?
Matt: Cluster Oysters. These are the oysters that grow on top of one another, in clusters, in plough (pronounced “pluff”) mud banks of marshes in the Lowcountry. They’re the same Crassotrea virginica that grow up and down the east coast but the way they grow, and the salt water here in Charleston, gives them a distinct flavor and narrow, elongated shape.
At a traditional Lowcountry oyster roast, you shovel clusters—each of which may have 3-12 oysters hanging together on them—onto a sheet of metal over a wood fire, and cover them with wet burlap until they cook just enough to loosen the hinge and make them easy to shuck.
Of course we’re biased, but these are the best oysters we’ve ever tasted, and we’ve tasted a good many over the years. And we haven’t (yet!) found a cost-effective, gentle way to ship them. But that may be part of their charm. Some things are just so special you have to travel hundreds of miles to experience them!
How do the two of you develop a recipe together? I’m assuming there’s a fair amount of brotherly teasing happening throughout, but do you find that one of you has a particular strength conceptualizing while the other executes, or is it 50/50 all the way?
Ted: It’s pretty much 50/50, just depends on who gets inspired when. Some recipes hit like a bolt of lightning—the Pimento Cheese Potato Gratin in Simple Fresh Southern hit me like that; Matt came up with the Mint Julep Panna Cotta similarly, just like…pow!
Other times, we’ll talk through an idea based on a recipe we’ve seen or tasted recently. For example, we were recently speaking to the Women’s Book Club of Moncks Corner-Pinopolis in South Carolina and a woman there gave us her mother’s recipe for Pineapple Casserole.
It’s a simple, classic mid-century side dish, typically served warm with country ham or other roasted meats. It’s made with canned pineapple, eggs, sugar, cubed white bread, and melted butter in a 9×13 casserole dish and baked until crusty and browned.
We were thinking it’d be great to reinvent it in our own style: use fresh pineapple, dial back the sugar a bit, but push it more in the direction of a dessert, like a pineapple bread-pudding. And it just so happened that the week before, we’d tasted a really cool dessert we’d never encountered—Cornbread-Pudding at Gary Lang and Beth Shaw’s Breakwater Restaurant in Beaufort, SC.
So we’ll be going into the test kitchen soon to develop just that: Pineapple Cornbread Pudding. We’ll let you know how it goes!
According to your timeline, 2009 was the year New York foodies discovered fried chicken and 2010 is the year they’re all coming around to boiled peanuts. What will be the hot Southern food for 2011?
Ted: Aspic. I’d be really psyched to see NY foodies interpretations of the jellied world. I feel like there’s been a lot of experimentation with gelatins in dessert, time to tackle the savory. With the mayo and everything. Bring it, y’all!
As a Northerner, I’ve always thought it was verboten to drink mint juleps out of season, like wearing white after Labor Day. Can you/should you drink them when there’s still snow on the ground, and if not, how would you winterize the cocktail?
Matt: We’re all about wishful transformations of whatever geographic-seasonal predicament you might to be in. If it’s 38 degrees in March in Manhattan and you’re hankering for some Louisville-in-May, crank up the heat and mix up a pitcher of juleps (fortunately, most markets have hothouse-grown mint year-round). Then again, I’d be amped to winterize a julep, warm it up like a toddy but keep the flavors in the minty realm.
Southern cuisine has been set in aspic, as it were, in the eyes of so many cooks. What do you most want to educate people on in regard to the growth and evolution of Southern cooking?
Ted: True, many people’s impressions of Southern food tend to be stuck in the mid-century, which was a relatively brief period in the history of Southern cooking—
Matt: —which, let’s remember, began with Native Americans.
Ted: But we feel that’s changing, that more and more people are realizing—as they did with Italian food in the 1980s—that you first have to speak to regionality when talking about southern food.
We may share fundamental ingredients and flavors from region to region, but what and how we eat in Charleston is different from Asheville, NC is different from New Orleans, LA is different from the tidewater region of Virginia. Once you’re talking about a region, you can then discuss the history of the cuisine there, how it came to be, what were the influences….
Matt: There are towns in West Virginia, for example, where Lebanese immigrants settled in the 1930s to work the coal mines, whose foodways are part of the culture of that place, that southern food.
Ted: And then, knowing that history, you can focus a lens on how chefs and home cooks in the region are interpreting the cuisine of the place. Are they completely side-stepping the Lebanese influence? Are they riffing on it, doing an intelligent fusion of mountain-South and Lebanese? We get a sense that as more people are traveling throughout the south and discovering the richness and diversity of southern food for themselves.
We could talk about southern food until we’re blue in the face, but nothing we could say, write, or serve compares to getting on the road and tasting what it means to travel through the South, from Charleston, SC, to Athens, GA, to Chapel Hill, NC, to Birmingham, AL, to eat the food in restaurants, roadside joints, and in people’s homes, and to meet with the chefs, the farmers, the fishermen and the food producers who are the ones making it so exciting to cook and eat southern in 2010.
For expat Southerners searching for Carolina Gold rice, Cheerwine soda, or other Southern specialties, Matt and Ted will hook you up through The Lee Bros. Boiled Peanuts Catalogue. Their newest cookbook, Simple Fresh Southern has just been nominated for a James Beard Award—way to go, guys, we’re rooting for you!