Interview: Ted And Matt Lee, Authors Of 'Charleston Kitchen' The Lee bothers, Matt and Ted, have written two cookbooks about Southern cuisine, but now they've turned their attention to a more specific region: Charleston, the city they grew up in. Their new book contains recipes and stories from a seafood-centric community with a rich culinary history.
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A 'Charleston Kitchen' Full Of Foraged And Forgotten Foods

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A 'Charleston Kitchen' Full Of Foraged And Forgotten Foods

A 'Charleston Kitchen' Full Of Foraged And Forgotten Foods

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


I'm Melissa Block. And if there were any justice in this world, I'd be having this next conversation over some broiled peanuts and a big plate of roasted oysters in Charleston, South Carolina, right now. But instead, I'm here in Washington, D.C., looking at a copy of "The Lee Bros' Charleston Kitchen" cookbook. Ted Lee joins me from New York, but his brother Matt Lee is in Charleston. Lucky you, Matt. Matt and Ted, welcome to the program.

TED LEE: Thank you.

MATT LEE: Thanks for having us.

BLOCK: Matt, do me a favor, just conjure up would you a meal sort of start to finish, a really typical, fantastic Charleston menu, where would you start?

LEE: I would start with kumquat sparklers, with the flavor of backyard kumquats, which are like tangerines. Also, classic Charleston cheese biscuits with a single pecan pressed into it and savory benne wafers - sesame seed wafers.

BLOCK: OK. And, Ted, next course?

LEE: Moving on to soup. We do a she-crab soup, and then we'd do a shrimp and grits. For vegetables, I think this is the perfect time to do Chainey Briar; it's growing really well out on Sullivan's Island. We'd do some grilled Chainey Briar. And also for some color contrast, sweet potatoes on the plate. We make them with sorghum marshmallows. And for dessert, Matt, what do you think?

LEE: I think Huguenot torte.

BLOCK: Huguenot torte. What's Huguenot torte?

LEE: Huguenot torte has this nice meringue-like crisp top but then a sludgy caramel and apple and pecan bottom to it. It's got flour but tons of leavening, so it just puffs up in the oven, then collapses and creates this very interesting and uniquely Charleston dessert.

BLOCK: Oh, man, you're just making us all so hungry right now.


LEE: Come on down.

BLOCK: Oh, I wish I could. The two of you have focused in a couple of books before on Southern food, but now, you're really drilling in on the city where you grew up. You were born in New York, but you move to Charleston when you were kids. So what is it about Charleston food that has such personality? How would you describe it? Matt?

LEE: Well, it's naturally about the seafood and also about the poultry. The much-heralded, like, Porkopolis of the South...


LEE: ...doesn't really exist so much in Charleston, because it was never a place to raise cattle or pigs, being so marshy.

BLOCK: And, Ted, it also involves - from the book, I can tell - it involves a lot of local produce. I mean you described going out with a farmer to get fresh collards. You - it seems like it's still pretty easy to get fresh stuff right off the farm.

LEE: Absolutely. Yeah. I think another thing that visitors to Charleston are surprised by is just how close the farms are - the rural part of Charleston - to the city. And another thing is that even downtown - we grew up downtown in the historic district - we're surrounded by fruits of all kinds, like kumquats, loquats, mulberries, figs, pomegranates, bananas, citrus. They all grow downtown, and you grow up, sort of, knowing where the trees are and which ones taste best.

BLOCK: And if they're not in your own yard, you have some techniques for...

LEE: Yes.

BLOCK: ...foraging, or we should just say stealing from other people's trees. What's the secret?

LEE: Foraging, stealing, pretending that you know the old widow's grandson. Yeah. There are a lot of secrets in back alleys in Charleston that yield great fruits and herbs.

BLOCK: And what's the secret for foraging without getting in trouble?

LEE: Secret for - be very polite.

LEE: Wear a smile.

BLOCK: Wear a smile?

LEE: Wear a smile. That's awfully disarming.

BLOCK: I've got to ask you both about a recipe you have in your book: grilled chainey briar. Matt, what is Chainey Briar?

LEE: Chainey Briar is a native weed or vine. It's smilax botanically, and it's something that grows on fence lines. It grows on sand dunes at the beaches, and it has, in the spring right about now, a tender tip, a shoot that is delicious. And it's considered wild asparagus by some people in Charleston, and other people call it Chainey Briar. And it never appears in restaurants or in grocery stores. It's just one of those things that you have to live here to really appreciate.

BLOCK: Is it an acquired taste? I'm looking at the photograph. It looks like a tangle of stuff that you might mow or clip from your garden.


LEE: Right.

LEE: It's pretty rangy, and that's the appeal, in terms of flavor. I mean it tastes like asparagus but with this extra sort of reckless green thing. Sometimes, we describe it as tasting like asparagus with olive oil already on it.

BLOCK: You've written about the attention in Charleston between the past and the present in cooking, and I wonder how that shows up as you're looking at recipes for the book.

LEE: This is Ted speaking. We find a lot of inspiration in old cookbooks, especially ones from the 19th century. And we think they tell a story so diverse and varied about the different kinds of vegetables that were grown in the low country, some of which are rarely found, like salsify, tania, which is...

BLOCK: Tania.

LEE: It's a root vegetable. And it's just interesting the ways in which you discover new things by looking in old books. It' nice to be able to draw from the past to inform your kitchen in the present.

BLOCK: Well, one of the cookbooks that I know you draw on is a famous one from the 1950s, a Junior League cookbook called "Charleston Receipts." But I'm also fascinated by one that you mentioned called "Cooking for That Man."


BLOCK: Tell me about that one, Matt.

LEE: "Cooking for That Man" is a cookbook from the Ravenel, South Carolina, area, due south of Charleston. It's a community cookbook. And what we love about it, what drew us to it is that it contained a recipe attributed to an old Charleston area destination restaurant, called the Edisto Motel Restaurant. This was a place that for a long time in the 20th century just drew carloads of festive Charlestonians, to stand in line with a beer in the hand for hours waiting for the most gorgeous blond platters of fried shrimp, oysters, flounder, whiting you've ever seen. And I don't know why it went out of business, but in any case, their deviled crab recipe was contained in "Cooking for That Man."


BLOCK: That man.

LEE: We don't know who that man is.


BLOCK: It could be anyone.


LEE: It could be anybody.

BLOCK: In your dessert section of this book, you have a recipe from the 1700s that you say really deserves a revival, and it's for something the - absolutely fantastic name syllabub.

LEE: Syllabub. Despite the fact that it appears in all the old cookbooks, Matt and I have never been served it - either in a Charleston restaurant or in a Charleston home. And so we just tried it ourselves, and it's basically very simple. It's fortified wine that's been seasoned with lemon juice and lemon peel, a little bit of sugar, sometimes spices and whipped with cream until it's sort of this airy, fluffy, alcoholic whipped cream that goes really well with fruit and so easy.

BLOCK: Oh, it sounds so good.


BLOCK: Ted and Matt Lee, thanks so much. It's been really fun to talk to you.

LEE: Thank you.

LEE: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Ted and Matt Lee, their book is "The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen."


BLOCK: And if you haven't had some Chainey Briar growing wild near you, you'll find a recipe for how to grill it, along with recipes for Huguenot torte and syllabub, it's at


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