The latest cookbook from food writers and recipe developers Matt Lee and Ted Lee offers an intimate glimpse inside Charleston’s home kitchens—as well as some new twists on the city’s cooking traditions.
“Charleston’s a small city and there’s a sense that all the stories about its food have already been told. But as soon as you shake off the received wisdom and sit down with people who remember it, or who live their entire days out on the water, you get a perspective you never imagined. We tell a lot of stories in this book, but we feel this is the tip of the iceberg. We feel like there’s a real place for oral history and research in fun, user-friendly cookbooks.”
— Matt Lee and Ted Lee, authors of “The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen”
What makes Charleston home cooking unique?
The influence of the coast—we love our fish and shellfish here! It’s rare that you’ll have a meal in a Charleston house that doesn’t include crab, shrimp, oysters, or fish. We also adore rice here; rice was grown in the coastal plain south of Charleston in the 18th and 19th centuries, and Charlestonians have never lost their love for it, so you find a lot rice dishes–pilaus (or purloos)—in the cuisine.
What did testing and updating traditional recipes from old Charleston cookbooks teach you?
We get so inspired by old cookbooks! Even if the old books tend to have a looser instructional vibe, there are so many great ideas in them. A book like “Charleston Receipts” is a window into what people cooked in Charleston kitchens in the midcentury. We also like reviving old recipes that have fallen out of favor—and that we’re eager to bring back. In this book, recipes like Syllabub and Peach Leather are ones that you never see anymore, and for no good reason. And sometimes the old books just leave you puzzled: a baked casserole of clams with eggplant in “Charleston Receipts” was one that sounded intriguing but which we couldn’t make delicious no matter how hard we tried!
Foraging for local foods is something you did as kids and still do today. What are some ways to use these flavorful finds?
Locals bake muscadines into grape-hull pie, but we have friends who make wine from it. We don’t have the patience for that—we just juice the grapes and combine them with dry white wine to make a deliciously refreshing sangria we drink gallons of during the season because it’s so hot out. Kumquats are most often eaten out of hand or preserved like a marmalade, but we—it seems we’re often thinking in a cocktail-hour frame of mind— infuse them with spirits like gin or vodka and make cocktails. Local citrus like grapefruit is mostly ignored by home cooks, and simply eaten out of hand, but we make a Grapefruit Chess Pie in this book that is truly delicious. The local figs—sugar figs or turkey figs—are most often preserved, but in our new book we pair them with Syllabub. A classic Charleston treatment for loquats is to pour straight vodka or grape brandy over a jar of them and let them sit until the liquor takes on this wonderful cherry almond flavor. You know you’ve found a real old-Charleston family when you see a jar of oxidized, brown loquats on the bar along with the cut-crystal bottles of whiskey and gin.
Photos: Reprinted from the book The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen by Matt Lee and Ted Lee. Copyright © 2013 by Matt Lee and Ted Lee. Photographs copyright © 2013 by Squire Fox. Published by Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House, Inc.