Despite growing up on Charleston’s iconic Rainbow Row, Matt and Ted Lee were more fascinated with the Holy City’s hidden architectural gems. “We wanted to explore places like Stoll’s Alley and Longitude Lane,” says Ted. “These were places that no one else really wanted to go, but to us, they defined Charleston.”
The Lee Bros. run with this philosophy in their third book, an ode to Charleston home cooks, producers, and purveyors, aptly titled Charleston Kitchen. As they write in their introduction, Charleston culinary culture is not as focused on the foodie as it is on the food. While residents appreciate the recent outpouring of culinary accolades, we’re just as interested in snagging and steeping kumquats found on South of Broad trees or procuring the proper pan for authentic shrimp popovers.
“It’s important to send that message, especially because Charleston is so hot right now,” Matt explains. “Who knows? Nashville or even Greenville might be next. But we don’t care about that. Living here, the knowledge is so vast, there will never be a point when we’ve learned it all about Charleston food.”
“We’re not the authorities. We’re just enthusiastic,” Ted adds.
Charleston Kitchen veers off the main drag, telling the story of our pantries, backyards, fields, and waterways with accounts from current Charleston residents, many with ancestors who submitted recipes to the original Charleston Receipts published in 1950.
There’s Shrimp Supreme, contributed by award-winning pitmaster Jimmy Hagood’s grandmother, Marion Taber Maybank. Charleston Kitchen’s cheesecake recipe is adapted from local attorney Leonard Krawcheck’s mother, Esther Bielski Krawcheck, and her cook, Agnes Jenkins.
In taking on Charleston Receipts, the Lee Bros. had to go deeper in their third work than they have in previous books. “Forget everything you’ve learned about she-crab soup. We’re going to do it from the ground up,” Ted begins. “What is crab roe? Where is it found? What does it look like? How does a crabber find it?”
Matt and Ted sat down with funeral home directors, U.S. Foods truck drivers, farmers, fishermen, caterers, and archivists to get the backstory on Charleston classics and little-known standards of the time.
One of Matt’s favorite profiles is Suzy Backman of Backman’s Seafood. The Lee Bros. first read her story in a 1965 issue of Ebony magazine. As the captain, owner, and family matriarch of Backman’s, Suzy kept up a thriving business with three seafood trawlers throughout the 1950s and ’60s. Her son, Thomas, runs the company today off of Sol Legare Road near Bowen’s Island.
“The idea that there was this businesswoman in Charleston’s mid-century history that was killing it and still influences where we buy our fish today … that was neat,” Matt says.
Other profiles include Johns Island farmer Sidi Limehouse, Capt. Clarence “Junior” Magwood, and the domesticated “helmeted” guinea fowl near Lamboll and Legare streets.
The tales are accompanied by more than 100 bang-up recipes with surprisingly few ingredients and straightforward directions.
“The recipes in Charleston Kitchen are a function of the kind of cooking we do in Charleston and what we’ve done historically,” Ted explains.
It’s less about the pomp and more about the parts. Think of shrimp and grits: shrimp stock, salt, pepper, shrimp, and grits — not too complicated, especially compared to something like a New Orleans Gumbo, which can have between 15 and 20 ingredients.
The Lee Bros. sat down with well-known Charleston caterer Francis Hamby, who provided a simple explanation for the simplicity of traditional local recipes. Until relatively recently, a Charleston kitchen was physically constrained and under-equipped. “There was no air conditioning, no oven, no Pyrex bowls, and no room to move around,” Ted says. “Charleston cooking has never been about the equipment.”
But it has always been about the ingredients: salsify, orange flower water, chainey briar (wild asparagus). Through their research and recipes, the Lee Bros. push Charleston food growers, vendors, and residents to broaden a fundamental awareness of past, present, and future consumption.
For example, when it comes to backyard citrus, “you’ve got what you’ve got,” says Ted of the cookbook’s local fruit-intensive cocktail section. “If kumquats are free and delicious, why not use them?”
In addition to recipes, histories, and in-depth profiles, Charleston Kitchen includes the most thorough Charleston food book bibliography yet, as well as a map that identifies relevant recipe locales.
The Lee Bros. have come a long way from their boiled peanut mail order roots, but their zest for Charleston food has remained.
“The level at which we understand even the most basic of dishes is still very small,” Matt explains. “After wrapping up this book of 110 recipes or so, we’re very aware of the fact that it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
The Lee Bros. kicked off their third book tour on March 19. At this point, their plans have been refined down to a science. “We do two events a day, we drive ourselves, couch surf, and have a blast,” says Matt. “We make it pay off.”
The Lee Bros. will make several appearances in Charleston, beginning with a luncheon Fri., March 22 at 11 a.m. at Fleet Landing sponsored by Blue Bicycle Books. That same day at 6 p.m., they’ll sign books at the Preservation Society of Charleston store at 147 King St. And on Sat., March 30 at 2 p.m. they’ll be part of the Historic Charleston Foundation’s “Gardens, Galleries and Gourmet” tour in the Dock Street Theatre Courtyard at 135 Church St. Visit mattleeandtedlee.com for ticket information.